While death and disease from common fungal infections are largely a rare and uncommon occurrence in modern medicine, doctors are eyeing the spread of a recently discovered strain.
"It started out as a hospital infection and it is resistant to all antifungal agents. So this fungus, when it infects a patient, can be missed by most physicians unless they're specifically looking for it," Dr. Bob Lahita, Director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Diseases at Saint Joseph Health, said on "Mornings with Maria" Wednesday.
"And as a result," the doctor continued, "the patient goes on to die of fungemia or diffuse fungal infection in the blood and in internal organs."
Candida auris, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports has been nationally notifiable since 2018, has especially targeted patients in intensive care units, according to Dr. Lahita.
The CDC also labels the C. auris fungi as a "serious global health threat" on its website, stating the infection is spread mostly within healthcare facilities and is "multi-drug resistant."
As of Wednesday afternoon, CDC tracking data indicates the states with the highest concentration of cases include California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New York.
Dr. Lahita claimed the best way to test for the fungus is through blood samples.
"But the doctors have to be looking for it," he clarified. "The doctors are not always aware of Candida auris and are not necessarily looking for it when the patient gets very sick with fever, pneumonia, shock. And so this fungus can take over and kill the patient readily."
Critically ill patients have an increased risk of developing life-threatening symptoms or infection from C. auris, the health professional cautioned.
"Now, we're letting doctors, particularly young doctors, know about this fungus and we're telling them to look for it in any patient who is critically ill," Dr. Lahita said. "If you're getting cancer chemotherapy or chemotherapy for an autoimmune disease, or you have some immunodeficiency or even COVID-19, you are at risk for getting fungal infections."
Treatment for fungal infections differs from bacterial infections mainly due to the yeast component, Dr. Lahita pointed out while noting fungal medications can have "horrible" side effects.
"Oftentimes the patient succumbs to the drug that is being used to treat the fungus," Dr. Lahita said. "Now, fungi are not like anything else. They're a whole new realm of organism that can be a problem and be very resistant to our therapy."
But the doctor reminded patients that fungi are "ubiquitous, they’re everywhere," and not every strain can cause health harm.
"When the HIV crisis occurred in the late 70s and early 80s, young people were dying of bread mold infections, Aspergillus, to be specific. And that's because their immune systems were significantly tamped down," Dr. Lahita said.
"Your immune system is very important," he added. "These organisms we call opportunists, they're just opportunists. And that's the term that is very appropriate. They take advantage of the fact that our immune systems may be damaged now, may be taken over by a bacteria or a virus."