A hard-to-kill, occasionally deadly fungus has once again popped up in a U.S. hospital. This week, Oregon health officials reported a hospital outbreak of the hardy fungus known as Candida auris. Though C. auris infections remain rare in the U.S., its presence seems to be growing, with these being the first ever reported cases in the state.
The outbreak so far includes three patients at Seattle and Salem Hospital, according to the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Human Services. The first infection was discovered December 11, involving a patient who had “recent international health care exposures.” The other two patients hadn’t travelled recently but could have been exposed to the first patient, indicating local transmission within the hospital. The last case was confirmed Monday, just a day before Oregon health officials announced their investigation into the outbreak.
C. auris is a relatively new threat that may have only recently evolved to harm humans. It’s an alarming germ because it’s often resistant to most or all conventional antifungal drugs. And though it usually isn’t very dangerous to people with a healthy immune system, it can readily kill those in poorer health, including people hospitalized for other reasons. Its ability to rapidly spread and persist in environments where it’s set up a home, even in the face of standard decontamination, only adds to its terrifying reputation.
Documented outbreaks of C. auris have generally been small and isolated so far. But there are signs that we’re likely to come across the fungus more in the years to come and that it’s learning new tricks. There were two unrelated outbreaks in Texas and Washington D.C. reported this year, for instance, with some cases involving fully resistant strains transmitted between patients — the first time that’s been documented here. And like so many things, the covid-19 pandemic has likely only made C. auris more of a problem. Recent outbreaks of the fungal infection in countries like Brazil have emerged during peaks of the pandemic that stressed hospitals to the breaking point.
In these most recent cases, though, the yeast seems to be a mellower version of itself. “Fortunately, the organism we’re dealing with in this outbreak appears to respond to existing treatments,” said Rebecca Pierce, a Healthcare-Associated Infections Program manager at OHA, in a statement from the agency. “Nonetheless, it’s critical that we prevent the spread of the infection.”
C. auris is only one example of the festering superbug crisis facing the world. More than 2.8 million drug-resistant infections are estimated to occur annually in the U.S., along with at least 35,000 deaths. And though scientists are trying to develop new drugs that can replace antimicrobials that have lost their strength or find other ways to slow down the timeline of resistance, relatively little progress has been made. Within the next few decades, it’s possible that superbugs will kill more people annually than cancer.