A potentially fatal fungus is spreading in the United States, but those with minimal health risks are likely in the clear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The fungal species — Candida auris — spread at an “alarming rate” from 2020 to 2021, according to recently released CDC data. The agency said Monday it is becoming a more dangerous threat to public health and warned health care facilities to be on the lookout for the fungus in their patients.
Likely factors for its spread in hospitals include poor infection prevention practices and increased screenings for the fungus among patients, the CDC reported.
The fungal infection was first reported in 2016, but why is it resurfacing now and should you be concerned? Here’s what to know about C. auris:
What is it?
Candida auris may sound foreign, but you may be familiar with its sibling — Candida albicans — which is typically what causes vaginal yeast infections, explained Dr. Julie Trivedi, medical director of infection prevention at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“Candida in and of itself is found in the intestinal tract and can cause yeast infections, especially in cases where maybe people have had antibiotics,” Trivedi said.
C. auris is a type of yeast that can enter the bloodstream and falls under the fungus kingdom, which encompasses a diverse group of organisms. Fungi are commonly found outdoors, including in mulch and mold, and yeasts like Candida are considered a type of microscopic fungi, she said.
“We see other types of Candida species that can cause infections in the hospital, and sometimes these are in patients who have either been in hospitals very frequently,” Trivedi said.
However, since they are resistant to most antifungal drugs, C. auris infections are hard to treat, and severe cases can be fatal. About 30% to 60% of infected people have died from it, based on data from a limited number of patients — many of whom had other serious illnesses that also increased their risk of death — the CDC reported.
In 2022, the government agency reported 160 clinical C. auris cases in Texas out of 2,377 total in the United States. A 2022 World Health Organization ranking of disease-causing fungi listed C. auris in its critical priority group.
So why exactly is the fungus resurfacing? It might be another lingering side effect from the pandemic, Trivedi said.
C. auris may have increased in frequency because of the strain on health care systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a shortage of health care workers and personal protective equipment.
“It’s possible that there could also be increased transmission because of those constraints that were placed on health care systems,” Trivedi said.
Patients in the hospital during COVID-19 likely also upped their intake of antibiotics, which put them at higher risk for exposure to the fungi, she added.
Who’s at risk?
People who either spend a long amount of time or are frequently at health care facilities are most at risk for infection, including hospitalized individuals or those in long-term care residences, Trivedi said.
Other patients at risk include those with cancer, those who recently had a transplant and those undergoing dialysis.
In addition, people with invasive lines, such as catheters or central lines, are also more susceptible to C. auris infection, as they serve as “possible ports of entry” for any bacteria.
“Catheters and ports are basically a way for organisms on the outside to be able to get on the inside,” she said.
Should I be worried?
If you’re a healthy person who doesn’t spend much time at the hospital, there’s a low chance you’ll get infected.
Moreover, the infection will likely not cause a respiratory outbreak the same way COVID-19 did, which was considered a respiratory viral infection, Trivedi said. Unlike COVID-19, C. auris cannot be spread through respiratory droplets, or breathing.
“The pace, and the number of cases might continue to increase, but it’s going to increase in a different way,” she said.
Instead, C. auris infection is mainly spread through extended periods of contact with someone who has it, such as sharing the same room as an infected patient. Shaking hands with an infected person likely won’t transmit the fungus, Trivedi said.
“I do think that it’s important for individuals to recognize that this is a growing threat,” she said.
©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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