Common fungal infections are “becoming incurable” with global mortality exceeding that for malaria or breast cancer because of drug-resistant strains which “terrify” doctors and threaten the food chain, a new report has warned.
Writing in a special “resistance” edition of the journal Science, researchers from Imperial College London and Exeter University have shown how crops, animals and people are all threatened by nearly omnipresent fungi.
“Fungal infections on human health are currently spiralling, and the global mortality for fungal diseases now exceeds that for malaria or breast cancer,” the report notes.
While the problem of bacteria becoming resistant to commonly used antibiotics has been widely reported on, and likened to the “apocalypse” by medical leaders, the risks of disease-causing fungi have received far less recognition.
Fungicides share a problem with antibiotics in that the organisms they aim to kill are becoming resistant to treatments faster than they can be developed, and there are growing numbers of people vulnerable to infection.
“We’ve got increasing numbers of immunosuppressed patients, that’s what fungi love to parasitise,” Matthew Fisher, professor of fungal disease epidemiology at Imperial, told The Independent.
“Half a million people a year probably die from fungal meningitis in Africa, which wouldn’t affect them if they didn’t have Aids.
“Similarly in the UK we have transplant patients as well, as soon as you whack them on immunosuppressants they start coming down with fungal infections.”
“Transplant doctors are absolutely terrified of these fungal infections,” he added, and the same issues arise in cancer patients, or people whose immune systems are destroyed by disease or age – leaving them unable to fight off infection on their own.
Our immune systems have evolved alongside fungi for millennia to keep us protected against the ever-present pathogens.
Unlike bacteria on surfaces and water droplets, fungi are much better at getting airborne and there are at least five types of potentially disease-causing spores in every breath.
“Compost heaps are absolutely lethal if you don’t have fully functioning innate immunity,” said Mr Fisher.
“If you dig into a heap and get a puff of powder, that will be aspergillus fumigatus.
“If your lung macrophages [white blood cells], don’t mop those spores up, they’re absolutely happy growing at 37 degrees and they’ll just rot you down as quick as a flash – that’s a heavy-duty pathogen.”