SA's private hospitals have been hit by a mysterious and deadly fungal infection that is spreading across the globe, and no one knows how to stop it
- A fungus called candida auris is spreading around the world at an alarming rate because it is resistant to drug treatments.
- Some experts believe the global increase in candida auris is due in part to climate change.
- Drug-resistant "superbugs" like candida auris evolve to resist existing treatments. That makes them exceptionally dangerous.
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Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die from antibiotic-resistant superbugs - germs that evolve so quickly, existing treatment options can't eradicate them.
But it's not just deadly drug-resistant bacterial infections that are spreading. We also have to worry about drug-resistant fungal infections, too.
A deadly, drug-resistant fungus called candida auris is spreading on a global scale.
In 2009, doctors first found candida auris in the ear discharge of a patient in Japan. Since then, the fungus has spread to numerous other countries, including the US, Colombia, India, and South Korea, according to the US government health authority, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Earlier this year, Professor Nelesh Govender from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases told 702 that the first case was detected in South Africa as far back 2009. Some 1 700 cases were detected between 2012 and 2016.
Candida Auris has been found in almost 100 hospitals, with the vast majority of cases have occurred in Gauteng.
Govender told 702 that the infection is more prominent in private sector hospitals. While these hospitals have 'excellent;' infection control systems, antibiotics are overused, Govender said.
Some experts think our over-reliance on pesticides and drugs creates superbugs
Doctors and researchers are still unsure what causes drug-resistant diseases, but they do know there are different strains of candida auris in different parts of the world, causing them to believe the fungus didn't come from a single place, The New York Times reported.
Some experts think heavy use of pesticides and other antifungal treatments caused candida auris to pop up in a variety of locations around the same time. In 2013, researchers reported on another drug-resistant fungus called Aspergillus and observed that it existed in places where a pesticide that targeted that specific fungus was used.
As pesticides, antifungals, and antibiotics continue to be heavily used on crops and in livestock, it's possible that the fungi and bacteria they're targeting learn how to evolve to stay alive in spite of the treatments.
Until researchers are able to pinpoint the cause of these drug-resistant diseases, authorities are urging people to use soap and hand sanitizer before and after touching any patients, and reporting cases to public health departments right away.
Some researchers believe the global rise in candida auris is due in part to climate change, according to a recent editorial from the American Society for Microbiology.
"As the climate has gotten warmer, some of these organisms, including candida auris, have adapted to the higher temperature, and as they adapt, they break through human's protective temperatures," Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in a release.
People with weakened immune systems have a high risk for infection
Typically, candida auris affects people with weakened immune systems who are in the hospital or have severe illnesses, according to the CDC. In fact, candida auris outbreaks have been reported in hospitals and healthcare centers around the world.
In the UK, an intensive care unit had to shut down after they found 72 people there were infected with candida auris, and in Spain, a hospital found 372 patients had the fungus. Some 41% of the Spanish hospital patients affected died within 30 days of being diagnosed.
Candida auris worries healthcare experts because it can't be contained with existing drug treatments. It even has the ability to survive on surfaces like walls and furniture for weeks on end, according to the CDC. People who contract these drug-resistant diseases typically die soon after contracting them because of their untreatable nature.
Most fungal and bacterial infections can be stopped using drugs. But with drug-resistant fungi and bacteria, their genes evolve so quickly that the treatment meant to target them proves ineffective and allows the dangerous disease to spread.
Drug-resistant diseases are difficult to detect
To make matters worse, many people who carry drug-resistant diseases don't show any symptoms and spread them unknowingly. According to the CDC, 1 in 10 people the agency screened for superbugs carried a drug-resistant disease without knowing it.
More specifically, someone may not realize they have candida auris if they are also sick with another illness, the CDC wrote on its website. Fever and chills that don't go away following drug treatment are common candida auris symptoms, but the only way to diagnose the fungus is through a lab test.
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