Science & Tech

Fungal infections pose ‘growing threat to human health’ and the world is unprepared

Fungal infections pose ‘growing threat to human health’ and the world is unprepared
Could the zombie fungus from The Last of Us really happen?

The video game inspired post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us centers around a parasitic fungal infection turning humans into zombies.

In the show, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which usually targets insects has infected humans where spores infiltrate their bodies and hijacks minds, turning them into bloodthirsty zombies.

While this is a work of fiction in the series, just how prepared are we in real life against fungal infections?

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Fungi have been described as "silent killers" with it causing the death of 2m people each year and is ahead of TB or malaria in terms of top global causes of death, according to GAFFI.

Over 150 million severe cases of fungal infections occur annually worldwide, with approximately 1.7 million deaths per year.

Though while there are millions of fungi species around the world, only a small amount of those infect humans - some of these infections include athlete's foot.

In October last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its first list of 19 fungi considered to be life-threatening and warned some strains are becoming more widespread and drug-resistant.

The report read: "Despite posing a growing threat to human health, fungal infections receive very little attention and resources globally.

“This all makes it impossible to estimate the exact burden of fungal infections, and consequently difficult to galvanise policy and programmatic action.”

Dr. Justin Beardsley, of the University of Sydney Infectious Diseases Institute who supported the development of WHO's list described fungi as "the 'forgotten' infectious disease."

"They cause devastating illnesses but have been neglected so long that we barely understand the size of the problem."

There are four fungal infections that are part of WHO's "critical group," these pathogens include: Cryptococcus neoformans, Aspergillus fumigatus, Candida albicans and Candida auris.

For example, Candida auris is a yeast-type fungus that was first discovered back in 2009 inside the ear of a patient at Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital. Once inside the body it can enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body. Some strains can also be drug resistant.

The origins of Candida auris is unknown, but some have suggest climate change could be a contributing factor - much like in The Last of Us, though antifungal drugs being overused is another possibility for its emergence.

While with the Covid pandemic, vaccines were eventually developed and helped to reduce the spread of virus, there are currently no vaccines for humans to take against fungi.

“I think we underestimate fungal infections at our peril,” according to Dr Neil Stone from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London told the BBC.

“We’ve already done that for too long and we are completely unprepared for dealing with a fungal pandemic."

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