Drug-resistant fungus Candida auris is a problem but don’t freak out just yet

There have been a lot of recent headlines about an incurable strain of a deadly fungus the CDC has called a “serious global health threat.” But don’t freak out – yet. 

The New York Times reporter who broke the story of how widespread the fungus, Candida auris, has become stressed to “CBS This Morning” on Thursday that although it’s an issue that merits serious attention, particularly in hospitals, it is not yet a threat to the general public.  

“The people who are susceptible are people with weakened immune systems, the infirm, older folks in hospitals,” Matt Richtel said. “So let me put the finest possible point on this: the general public walking down the street [is] not going to be felled by this. You’re not gonna get it walking to Walmart. You’re not going to get it in your house.”

Richtel, who is also the author of a book about the immune system called “An Elegant Defense,” uncovered two cases of what’s called pan-resistant Candida auris in New York.  Nearly 600 cases of the fungus have been reported in the U.S.  It spreads through health care facilities like hospitals.

For his latest story on Candida auris, Richtel met the family of a 64-year-old Chicago woman who died  months after contracting the fungus. What he wants people to understand about it is that it fits into a much larger conversation about the rise in drug-resistant bacteria.

“What they ought to know is that this bug, this germ, raises the stakes in the issue of drug-resistant infections,” Richtel said. “It is a new germ that has mysteriously risen. And what they ought to know is that it is beginning to spread among hospitals around the world and then in particular in the U.S., New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.”

Candida auris was first identified in 2009 and first seen in the U.S. in 2013. More than 300 of the nearly 600 cases reported in the U.S. have occurred in New York state. Richtel’s reporting has focused not just on the risks of the infection itself but on the climate of secrecy around it. He hopes hospitals will be more transparent.

“One of the issues we focused on in this series we’re launching in The Times is the level of – and it’s a little bit strong of a word – secrecy, denial, confidentiality. Why? Well, look, not just hospitals, state governments, federal governments around the world – no one wants to be seen as an infection hub. It’s terrifying to look like you are a source of a drug-resistant bug,” he said.

But if you do find yourself in the hospital, there are ways to protect yourself.

“I think the most basic thing you can do is exercise yourself to feel empowered to ask: are you taking infection control steps? Are you washing your hands? Are you doing what is necessary to isolate the patients who are sick?” Richtel emphasized again that only the immune-suppressed are at risk.

Richtel also explained why he resists using the term “superbug.”  

“This is a real thing. A real source for long-term nervousness in our society. But if we call it a superbug, we create such hysteria suggesting everyone’s going to die in an apocalyptic fashion that we may become numb to the real problem. So I think of this in the terms that it is, a scary thing but something we can act upon.”

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