Candida auris: The killer fungus that’s quietly spreading in hospitals and beyond

TORONTO — While it’s likely that most COVID-fatigued people would be happy to push the idea of threatening infections completely out of their mind, doctors are warning about the spread of a deadly fungus that resists treatment and tends to thrive in hospital settings.

Virtually unknown before 2009, Candida auris has been increasingly identified in hospitals and long-term care settings, particularly in patients with weakened immune systems, and has shown itself to be disturbingly resistant to treatment, says Tom Chiller, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“It’s something that we’re seeing spread relatively easily in our healthcare settings and in our nursing homes,” Chiller told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday. “It’s able to live and grow on surfaces for prolonged periods of time and also colonize our skin, and what we’re finding is this particular species is very hard to kill.”

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 24 cases of C. auris between 2012 and September 2019 in Canada, but data in general about the fungus is sparse, particularly recently as hospitalizations have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a U.S. government study released in January said 35 patients at a Florida hospital in 2020 became infected.

The CDC says about 30-60 per cent of patients with C. auris have died, but they caution the figure is based on limited data.

“Generally, fungal infections get into our bloodstream and when they get into our bloodstream they can then invade vital organs, and unfortunately have quite high mortalities in people that are sick,” said Chiller.

Chiller said fungal infections are much less of a worry in someone who is healthy, but he also noted it can be difficult to rid healthcare settings of the fungus on surfaces and equipment where it can colonize. It can also be very difficult to identify in clinical settings.

“We’ve always been challenged by getting rid of these organisms and when they eventually infect humans they’re sort of opportunists,” he said. “This particular fungus is no different. It has found a way to survive, and so yes you really have to bump up your level of disinfection, you really got to be aggressive to get rid of this fungus or it will survive.”

“We need to be looking for it as it’s spreading and so there are screening tests we can do, we know the types of patients that are at risk. So the earlier we identify it the earlier we get on it the earlier we can control it and get rid of it,” he said.

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