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Fungus spreads in America

(Photo Courtesy of Scientific American) “The structure of Candida Auris, a new fungal infection spreading across the United States.”

Steven O’Hara
Connector Editor

A new fungal outbreak has hit the United States over this past year. Candida auris, a type of yeast, has been found across the country and globe, hospitalizing many of those who happen to contract this illness. Cases of infection have been found in people of all ages from young children to the elderly. It is multidrug resistant and can be difficult to treat and spreads through contaminated environments and surfaces or from person to person.

When contracting this fungus, it can lead to a serious invasive infection called Invasive candidiasis. This is an illness that should not be taken lightly, as it can affect a person’s blood, heart, brain, eyes, bones and other body parts. The process of diagnosing this fungal infection is difficult, as the only ways to determine its presence is through a blood and fluid culture. If diagnosed, there are high chances the individual will be hospitalized.

Dr. Timothy Ford, a professor and Associate Director at UMass Lowell, who has an expertise in environmental microbiology and waterborne diseases was interviewed on this topic. When asked about the spread of this disease, Dr. Ford said, “The denser the population, the more likely you are to come in contact with an infected individual. Candida auris, fortunately, is not airborne, but an infected person can carry the yeast on the skin or contaminate surfaces or equipment they touch. For example, if you’re at a gathering with an infected person and everyone is shaking hands, there’s a risk of transmitting the yeast to a lot of people, who in turn can further transmit the disease even if they are asymptomatic.”

As of the end of 2022, there have been two confirmed cases of Candida auris in Massachusetts, with the most confirmed cases being in the state of Nevada, with a total of 384 cases, according to the CDC’s Candida auris tracking data. The outlook for 2023 with infection status is currently unknown, but with COVID-19 restrictions lifted and our world returning back to a sense of normalcy, more cases may be in the forecast for this year. What would be the best way to avoid infection? Dr. Ford says, “If you have a choice, avoid hospitals and healthcare facilities, as that is where we see the predominant spread of these types of infectious diseases because you are often dealing with a highly susceptible, [immunocompromised] population – add to that the overcrowding of our healthcare facilities during COVID and you have the ideal conditions for transmission of disease.”

However, what if you have to go to the hospital for another health related issue? Dr. Ford says, “Healthcare facilities are unavoidable for most of us at some time in our lives. If we [are] healthy, it appears we are unlikely to contract Candida auris. However, that does not mean that we can’t come in contact with the yeast and potentially transmit it to others through direct contact. Basic hygiene practices, and particularly frequent washing of hands, are the best ways to protect yourself and others. This is particularly important after visiting sick friends or relatives but has also been shown time and time again to prevent transmission of many infectious diseases, and even reduce transmission risk from many airborne pathogens such as the viruses that tend to

deposit on surfaces such as door handles.” The more-at risk populations include those that have compromised immune systems, children and the elderly.

As a final thought, Dr. Ford said this, “We will continue to see what we call new and resurgent diseases as all the factors that lead to outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics are here to stay. There are many: population growth and movement, global conflicts and refugees, rapid global travel, infringement on sparsely inhabited regions of the world, increasingly aging populations, climate change resulting in infrastructure collapses, changing vector distributions, a pandemic that probably reduced population immunity to many other diseases[ through] behavioral changes, policies that promote profits over human health…I could go on, but I’m afraid this is very far from the last emerging, multi-drug resistant disease that we are going to see.”

With only two cases being confirmed in the past year, an outbreak of Candida auris may seem unlikely. However, it never hurts to stay prepared and wash your hands.

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