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Scientists warn of new fungal threat to human life

Posted: 05/07/2016

Public Health England (PHE) recently alerted healthcare professionals of a new strain of fungal infection and issued some guidance on investigating and controlling its spread. 

PHE has now reported that an adult critical care unit at an unnamed hospital in South East England has been affected by an outbreak since April 2015.  Despite enhanced control procedures, including ward closure, more than 40 patients have been colonised and the fungus is proving difficult to control. 

Fungal infections pose a serious risk to human health and can be fatal.  It is estimated that one million people worldwide die each year as a result of fungal infections – more than the number who die from malaria or breast cancer. 

Those with weaker immune systems are at greater risk.  The majority of fatalities are a result of one of three types of infections affecting the lungs, brain or membranes in the mouth and genitalia. There are no vaccines and treatment can be difficult, depending on the type of fungus and the particular patient, once colonisation is established.

The current concern is over a new species, known as Candida auris, which was first isolated in 2009 in Japan.  It has since spread to other countries across the globe and has now been confirmed in the UK.  PHE warns that this strain is resistant to the first choice anti-fungal drug and behaves differently to other species of pathogenic yeast. 

Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team explains: "Many people will be familiar with the mild fungi that cause athlete's foot or vaginal thrush but the more insidious types of fungal infection are less well known.

“Although this new strain is still rare, hospital and community healthcare workers need to be alert to Public Health England’s warning about its signs and symptoms. This strain is relatively new and it is too early to assess trends, which increases the need for vigilance. More needs to be done to develop new ways of treating this latest strain."

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