A deadly "superbug" fungus that is hard to spot and harder to kill is slowly infiltrating U.S. hospitals, health experts say.
Candida auris enters the bloodstream, spreads throughout the body and causes a variety of infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. More than 60 cases have been identified in the U.S., all but a few of them in New York and New Jersey. The CDC has alerted hospitals and other health care facilities across the nation to watch out for the relatively new fungus.
The fungus can be passed between people or through the environment from such things as hospital equipment, says Dr. Tom Chiller, chief of the CDC’s Mycotic (fungal) Diseases Branch.
Some strands of the fungus found in other countries have been resistant to the three classes of anti-fungal medicine, he said.
"We are dealing with an organism we don’t have drugs to treat. That is what worries us," Chiller told USA TODAY. "What we have seen (in the U.S. so far) has been treatable. We are trying to aggressively contain it, stop it and kill it."
The CDC says patients in the intensive care unit for a long time and patients who have a catheter placed in a large vein appear to be among those facing the highest risk of infection. The fungus has caused bloodstream, wound and ear infections. It also has been found in respiratory and urine specimens, but it is unclear if it causes lung or bladder infections.
The CDC issued a report six months ago saying the fungus had been found in 13 people and was linked to four hospital patient deaths in the U.S.
"Candida auris can kill and probably is killing," Chiller says. "We are seeing a 30% death rate, but these are often very sick people with a lot of medical problems when they get it. It's hard to determine how much of (the death toll) is really related to the fungus."
The fungus was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has been found in several countries since then, the CDC says. CDC researchers recently went to Colombia to survey an outbreak in three cities — and, alarmingly, found the fungus on the skin of patients and nurses who had been treated with standard anti-fungal medications.
Chiller says most U.S. cases have been found in New York and New Jersey, probably because the region has a dense population, a lot of travelers and a lot of medical professionals. Also, the fungus is more apt to be recognized there. The New York Department of Health said in a statement that it has taken "aggressive actions" to test for and detect the microbe.
The CDC notes that conventional lab techniques could lead to "misidentification and inappropriate treatment," making it difficult to control the spread of the fungus in health care settings.
"One of our major activities is to get the word out," Chiller says. "We are reaching out to health care communities, laboratories. But there may still be some gaps."
Chiller says the CDC is concerned that the more resistant strains could emerge in the U.S. and become mainstream.
"Thankfully, in the U.S. right now it remains a very rare infection," Chiller says. "And we are on it."