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CDC warns of 'alarming' recent rise of deadly fungus

The spread of Candida auris may have worsened due to the strain COVID-19 put on the health care system, researchers said.

Drug-resistant cases of the fungus Candida auris jumped in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday, after the fungus "spread at an alarming rate" in health care facilities during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Candida auris isn't considered a threat to healthy people whose immune systems can fight it off. However, it can be dangerous or even deadly for people who are already sick, use invasive medical devices or have long or frequent stays at medical facilities.

"People (are) getting it through the skin, into catheters, IV lines then getting into the blood stream. Unfortunately then people get really sick," said infectious disease expert Monica Gandhi.

CDC data shows 30% to 60% of people with Candida auris infections died, though that figure is based on a limited number of patients, many of whom had other serious illnesses.

Researchers said the number of Candida auris cases resistant to echinocandins, a first-line treatment for the fungus, in 2021 was about triple what it had been in each of the previous two years. The CDC considers the fungus an "urgent threat" because it is often multidrug resistant, spreads easily in health care facilities, and can cause infections with high death rates.

Clinical cases of the yeast strain rose nationally from 476 in 2019 to 1,471 in 2021, CDC data says. Screening cases, where a person carries the fungus but isn't infected, tripled from 2020 to 2021 for a total of 4,041. Data for 2022 continued to show an increase.

"The timing of this increase and findings from public health investigations suggest C. auris spread may have worsened due to strain on healthcare and public health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency said in a press release.

Credit: AP
FILE - This undated photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a strain of Candida auris cultured in a petri dish at a CDC laboratory. (Shawn Lockhart/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP, File)

Possible reasons for the growing case count include subpar prevention and control practices at health care facilities, as well as increased detection efforts.

The fungus has now been detected in more than half the states, with 17 of them identifying their first case between 2019 and 2021, and more than 30 countries. Identification requires specialized laboratory methods, meaning the true number may be higher.

"The rapid rise and geographic spread of cases is concerning and emphasizes the need for continued surveillance, expanded lab capacity, quicker diagnostic tests, and adherence to proven infection prevention and control," CDC epidemiologist Dr. Meghan Lyman said in the release.

Researchers say the findings "highlight the need for improved detection and infection control practices" to slow the emerging fungus' spread.

CBS 8's Jasmine Ramirez contributed to this report.

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