News & Politics

Here’s What to Know About the Untreatable Fungus Found in a DC Nursing Home

In general, there is no threat to the community (other than climate change).

Photograph by Arlington County/Flickr

Last week, the New York Times brought attention to an untreatable strain of the Candida auris fungus found in a DC nursing home. There were 101 local cases of the fungus from January to April, according to WJLA.

The fungus is dangerous to people who are seriously sick or have underlying conditions, says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The general population only needs to worry about spreading it. However, there isn’t any evidence the fungus has left the nursing home.

“Generally, we are aware of something when somebody gets a disease,” Casadevall says. “Unless community people were to get the disease, which, currently that’s not happening, we don’t know if it’s in the community.”

It is most often found in hospitals, intensive care units and nursing homes. The problem is, in addition to being drug-resistant, the fungus is hard to clean off surfaces. It comes down to an infection control issue, Casadevall says, for which the CDC has in-depth guidelines. Basically: wash your hands, disinfect the environment and screen patients.

“The important thing is surveillance,” Casadevall says. “The problem arises when you think you don’t have it, and then all of a sudden patients begin to come down with it. Generally, the hospitals are very attuned to this simply because it’s serious if it affects your patients.”

Candida auris first appeared 15 years ago, and its origins are mysterious. It appeared in three very different places at the same time — the India subcontinent, South America and South Africa — and was already resistant to drugs. Casadevall and a couple collaborators believe this may be the first fungus to emerge as a result of climate change.

“It was not known to humanity, and then all of a sudden you find it in three very different places, not related,” Casadevall says.

Their theory is that the fungus already existed, and as the world got warmer, it evolved to be able to grow at 37 degrees Celsius, which is the internal temperature of humans.

While we worry about bacteria, viruses and parasites, we tend to ignore fungal diseases, Casadevall says, and “these organisms need attention.” One of the reasons fungi are often ignored is because we have a “tremendous resistance to the fungi naturally, but part of that is because mammals are very hot.”

“We are protected from them because of our temperature,” Casadevall says. “The concern is as the world gets warmer, the fungi that are out there, some of them may have then acquired the capacity to grow at our body temperatures, and that then we may see new fungal disease that we didn’t even know about because we will lose the protection that we are getting from heat.”

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