Fungal infections – The Ophiocordyceps fungus has long been associated with internet theories that predict the coming of the zombie apocalypse.
It had a significant impact on the blockbuster HBO adaptation of the similarly well-liked video game “The Last of Us.”
The fungus mostly affects insects; people are unharmed and won’t turn into mindless predators as a result.
Despite the fiction, specialists caution that there is a greater danger of developing a fungal infection, particularly in light of how the globe has been sicker, warmer, and wetter.
At Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, Dr. Matthew Fisher teaches medicine.
His most recent studies concentrate on harmful new fungus.
“We’re always surrounded by fungal spores,” said Fisher. “We’ve lived with them ever since we made beds in the Savanna 500,000 years ago, before we even evolved into modern humans.”
“And we’ve had to adapt this exquisite immune system that we have to defend against spores, because many of them are potentially pathogenic.”
“Fungi are just seeking sources of food, and in the eyes of many soptropic fungi, we are just food,” he said, describing an organism that feeds on dead organic matter.
Although the majority of fungi are helpful to the environment, some of them are harmful and can make people sick.
Every year, new fungi are found by scientists, although not all of them are dangerous.
Only 400 of the more than 4 million could cause disease, according to experts, are human pathogens.
According to the Microbiology Society, the “superficial illnesses” that affect more than a billion people are as follows:
- Athletes foot
Even if they are irritating, they can be remedied.
However, some diseases endanger your life.
Around 1.5 million people die each year worldwide from fatal fungal infections, according to the Microbiology Society.
The World Health Organization clearly declared in 2022 that it views fungi-related disorders as a serious public health risk.
They came up with a list of the 19 different fungal infections to watch out for.
Who is at risk?
The human body is naturally immune to fungal infections, claims Dr. Matthew Fisher.
The immune system, however, could have a few minor flaws.
“Then we can have fatal consequences,” said Fisher.
He says that those with a high risk of getting fungal infections also typically have pre-existing diseases like diabetes, cancer, or HIV.
People whose immune systems have been harmed by aging, illness, or medicine are also at a greater risk.
However, some people may be more susceptible to more severe fungal infections because they lack access to Western-style therapies.
Due to a lack of access to therapies, studies have shown that cryptococcal meningitis is a major cause of death for people in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly those who have HIV.
An increase in fungal threats
Studies show that the rise in immune-suppressed individuals is a factor in the spread of dangerous fungal infections.
“What’s changing is that more people that are exposed have those high risk factors,” Fisher explained.
“We have aging populations, and we were using a lot of chemicals in the environment which are forcing fungi to adapt, and our clinical antifungals are being degraded by antimicrobial resistance.”
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic increased the likelihood of fungal infections, according to Dr. Matthew Kasson, a mycologist at West Virginia University.
“Viruses have this way of suppressing the immune response,” he explained.
“Some of the drugs we’re using to combat the viruses are also having an effect where they’re making it easier for fungi to invade.”
In 2021, a black fungus in India resulted in hundreds of fatalities.
About 85% of the fatalities were attributed with Covid-19 patients.
According to Fisher, certain fungi cause epidemics like Candida auris by quietly dispersing throughout the globe after appearing out of nowhere.
The spread of fungal infections has also been accelerated by the climate crisis.
“The world is becoming warmer and wetter,” explained Fisher.
“That’s just going to mean that there’s a higher burden of mold spores.”
The World Health Organization urges countries to improve monitoring and their ability to recognize fungal infections.
They also support boosting spending for research, medications, and infection monitoring.
According to WHO estimates, fungal infections receive less than 1.5% of funding for medical research.
It is difficult to develop antifungal therapies because of the association between animals and fungus, according to Dr. Matt Nelsen, a researcher at the Chicago Field Museum.
“We share a lot of biochemical similarities,” he said.
“So when we are trying to kill off the fungus, we need to be careful that we’re not also killing ourselves.”
A robust immune system is advised as a barrier against fungus infection.
Dr. Matthew Fisher advises parents to let their kids play outside more regularly so that they can be exposed to a variety of fungi and develop a robust immune system.
He advises households to increase ventilation and remove moisture.