CDC warns of ‘alarming’ recent rise in deadly fungus

The spread of Candida auris may have worsened due to the strain of COVID-19 being imposed on the healthcare system, the researchers said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that cases of drug-resistant Candida auris have spiked in 2021 after the fungus “spread at an alarming rate” in healthcare settings during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Candida auris is not considered a threat to healthy people whose immune systems can fight it off. However, it can be dangerous or even fatal for people who are already ill, use invasive medical devices, or stay in healthcare facilities for long or frequent periods.

“People get it through the skin, into catheters, IVs, and then into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, then people do get sick,” said infectious disease expert Monica Gandy.

CDC data shows that 30% to 60% of people with Candida auris infections have died, although this figure is based on a limited number of patients, many of whom had other serious illnesses.

The number of cases of Candida auris resistant to echinocandins, the first-line treatment for fungus, in 2021 was about three times the number of cases in each of the previous two years, the researchers said. The CDC considers the fungus an “immediate threat” because it is often multidrug resistant, spreads easily in healthcare settings, and can cause infections with a high mortality rate.

Clinical cases of the yeast strain have risen from 476 in 2019 to 1,471 in 2021, according to the CDC. Screening cases where a person is a carrier of the fungus but not infected tripled from 2020 to 2021, for a total of 4,041. Data for 2022 continues to show an increase.

“The timing of this increase and the results of public health studies suggest that the spread of C. auris may have worsened due to pressure on public health and public health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency said in a press release.

Possible reasons for the rise in cases include poor prevention and control practices in healthcare facilities, and increased detection efforts.

The fungus is now found in more than half of the states, with 17 of them reporting their first case between 2019 and 2021 and more than 30 countries. Identification requires special laboratory methods, meaning the true number could be higher.

“The rapid growth and geographic spread of cases is a cause for concern and highlights the need for continued surveillance, increased laboratory capacity, faster diagnostic tests, and adherence to proven infection prevention and control practices,” CDC epidemiologist Dr. Megan Lyman said in a press release.

The researchers say the results “highlight the need for improved detection and infection control methods” to slow the spread of the emerging fungus.

Jasmine Ramirez of CBS 8 contributed to this report.

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