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CDC warns of deadly, drug-resistant fungus Candida auris spreading across US

Infections from a type of yeast called Candida auris have spread to more than half the states in the U.S. and can be deadly to the medically fragile.
/ Source: TODAY

A deadly strain of fungus is spreading at "an alarming rate" and poses a particular threat to the medically fragile due to its resistance to antifungal medications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned.

The agency does not see C. auris as a danger to healthy people but warned about its increasing threat in a report on March 20 because it’s resistant to several antifungal medications. The fungus can cause serious illness and death among people who are already sick and using medical devices like ventilators or intravenous therapy at health care facilities or intensive care units.

“It’s causing outbreaks in health care facilities, particularly long-term care facilities,” NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said in a March 21 segment on TODAY. “If somebody’s on a ventilator or they have long-term IV lines in them, that’s how it can get into the body. Their immune systems aren’t that strong.”

candida auris
A yeast called Candida auris (above) is spreading at "an alarming rate" and poses a particular danger to people who are already sick in health care facilities, according to the CDC.Picture Alliance via Getty Image

Fungus Candida auris spreading in U.S., CDC says

A type of yeast called Candida auris, or C. auris, has spread from just four states reporting cases as of 2016 to more than half the country reporting cases by Dec. 31, 2022, per CDC data.

The fungus has been reported in more than 30 countries and was first detected in the U.S. in 2016. There have been a total of 3,270 clinical cases (where an infection is present) and 7,413 screening cases (where the fungus is present but not causing an infection) in the U.S. from 2016 to Dec. 31, 2021, the CDC said.

The number of drug-resistant cases of C. auris tripled in 2021, according to the CDC.

How concerned should we be? "This is not 'The Last of Us' type of apocalypse," Torres said in reference to the HBO hit about a fungus that wipes out much of civilization.

"This is not going to take over the globe and cause Armageddon throughout the world, but it is something that definitely needs to be looked into because it has increased since 2016 many, many fold and has spread throughout the country."

But "the problem is it's resistant to common antifungal drugs, and it seems to be getting more and more resistant," Torres stressed. "It's difficult to identify to begin with because it's inside the body and the symptoms mimic a lot of other (infections)."

“This is one of those things that seems to be spreading because, we think, of global warming,” Torres added. “The fungus usually doesn’t get in our bodies because it can’t stand the warm temperatures, but they think fungi in general are adapting to warmer temperatures because of global warming, (and) they’re going to be able to get into our bodies more and more often.”

Candida auris symptoms

A Candida auris infection can be difficult to identify because most people who get it are already sick with something else, the CDC noted. The most common sign of a candida auris infection is fever and chills that don't improve after treatment with an antibiotic.

The only way to diagnose C. auris is by testing blood and other bodily fluids. But the fungus can be hard to contain because it's difficult to distinguish from other yeasts, leading to misdiagnosis, the CDC said.

C. auris has caused bloodstream infections, wound infections and ear infections, per the CDC.

These are common signs of an invasive Candida infection, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Belly pain
  • Chills or fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle aches
  • Skin rash
  • Weakness or fatigue

About 30% to 60% of people with C. auris infections have died according to "information from a limited number of patients," the CDC said. Many of them also had other serious illnesses that increased their risk of death, the agency said.

Candida auris treatment

The CDC said that most C. auris infections are treatable with a type of antifungal medication called echinocandins. But, as the CDC report noted, a growing number of C. auris infections are resistant to all the main types of antifungal medication. These cases are difficult to treat, so multiple medications at high doses may be needed.

According to Cleveland Clinic, these treatments must be done in a hospital setting and the medication needs to be injected directly into the bloodstream. Common types of medications for invasive candida infections include:

  • Anidulafungin
  • Caspofungin
  • Fluconazole
  • Micafungin

Treatment usually takes about two weeks but for severe cases can last longer, per Cleveland Clinic.

How to reduce spread of Candida auris

The fungus can be spread from interactions between people and contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC. As a result, Torres said the best way to reduce spread of C. auris is through good hand hygiene.

“Wash your own hands, especially if you’re going to visit your loved ones, because it can be transmitted that way so you want to be very, very careful,” he said.

Torres also advised any loved ones of people in health care facilities to talk to the staff about their safety protocols for preventing spread of the fungus. And the CDC recommended that family remembers remind health workers to wash their hands regularly.