The fungus among us: the next pandemic

I thought we were friends. You help me make beer, wine, bread and kombucha.

We help you spread your spores by clearing land for crops and housing. We warm the climate to make it comfortable for you to grow. You happily hitchhike around the world on goods and animals.

Every day, every person on the planet inhales at least 1,000 fungal spores.

Sure, you can be irritating at times with your fungal skin infections. You bug us with your athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm, and yeast infections.

But now you are turning deadly. What gives?

Up until now, doctors have considered Valley Fever an exotic “desert disease” confined to California, Arizona, the southern tip of Nevada, New Mexico and west Texas.

Now Valley Fever, caused by Coccidioides, is on the move. It regularly infects about 150,000 a year in the desert and it’s now moving north. With soil becoming drier due to climate change, Coccidioides spores are blowing in the wind and infecting people in Washington State (Scientific American, June, 2021).

While no statistics are available for Canada, Coccidioides has likely moved into B.C.’s southern desert interior.

When those spores are inhaled, they can migrate from the lungs into the bloodstream, and from there to the skull and spine. The lungs react by producing scar tissue that stiffen and block the lungs, reducing breathing capacity. Masses can form around organs and the membranes around the brain, causing death.

Because infections have been relatively rare until now, there are few antifungal treatments. Also, they are difficult to design because fungal and humans human cells are so similar. It’s challenging to create a drug that can kill them without killing us, too.

The yeast-like fungus, Candida auris, was virtually unknown until 2009. Since then, there have been outbreaks of infection in hospitals and long-term care facilities in Canada and around the world. Most infections occur in patients with weakened immune systems: those receiving chemotherapy or surgery and who are on large intravenous lines.

Former president of the Canadian Infectious Disease Society, Dr. John Conly, says that we have been ignoring the growing multidrug-resistance of C. Auris for decades.

“The ball was dropped for many years,” says Conly. He likens antimicrobial resistance to climate change as: “a slow-moving tsunami.”

The COVID pandemic brought on new opportunities for C. Auris. In the frantic interventions to save patients from the coronavirus –such as ventilators, immune-damping drugs, broad-spectrum antibiotics- patients are left vulnerable to the fungus.

In the chaos of the pandemic, few statistics of infection were kept. But a report from New Delhi found that two thirds of the patients who contracted C. Auris died after they were admitted to hospital with COVID.

Another so-called friend is revealing its malevolence.  On its good side, Aspergillus fumigatus serves as a clean-up crew. It encourages the decay of vegetation in the composting process.

One its evil side, Aspergillus causes of an opportunistic infection spawned when someone with a compromised immune system cannot sweep away its spores. In people who are already ill, the mortality rate of Aspergillus is near 100 percent.

Aspergillus can invade organs and the blood stream, including the brain. Professor Kieren Marr of Johns Hopkins Medical Center says:“This is bad. Aspergillus is more important in COVID right now than C. auris. Without a doubt.”

Fungi are woven into our lives, our environments and our bodies.  

Can’t we continue to be friends?

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