A worrying superbug fungus has been spotted in Louisiana for the first time. On Tuesday, hospital officials reported that at least two patients at the University Medical Center in New Orleans had contracted Candida auris, a deadly yeast often resistant to antifungals that can spread quickly in hospitals. The cases follow the first Oregon outbreak of C. auris reported just a month earlier.
Nirav Patel, chief medical officer at the University Medical Center, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the hospital publicly reported the cases “out of an abundance of caution.” Citing privacy concerns, the hospital has disclosed little else about the cases, including the current condition of the two patients, when the infections are thought to have begun, and whether either had a recent travel history, which can be a risk factor for the transmission of drug-resistant infections. Patel did add that it’s likely C. auris has been around in the state longer than these cases would indicate.
The fungus is considered an especially dangerous emerging pathogen by health authorities around the world, particularly because it tends to resist many common antifungals. Though people can be infected by C. auris and develop few to no symptoms, it can cause serious bloodstream and wound infections that kill up to a third of hospitalized or otherwise sick patients, who often have weaker immune systems. Once it gains a foothold in a hospital or other health care setting, it can spread quickly through direct contact between people as well as through contaminated surfaces and medical equipment. It’s also not easy to spot, since standard tests can misidentify it.
Documented cases of C. auris have remained relatively rare since its discovery in 2009. But there are signs that it’s expanding its range, with cases reported in more than 20 states and some 30 countries. In late 2020, Brazil faced its first reported outbreak, one that may have been fueled by the overwhelming wave of hospitalizations caused by covid-19. Oregon reported its first cases in December 2021, though these were treatable with standard antifungals. Unfortunately, the U.S. also reported its first ever locally transmitted cases of C. auris resistant to all available drug classes last year.
Drug-resistant infections are becoming increasingly common, thanks in large part to our mismanagement of these precious drugs and our lagging development of replacements. But C. auris may be even more of a self-inflicted wound than other superbugs. There’s some evidence that the rising temperatures caused by climate change in recent decades may have led to its emergence as a harmful infection in the first place.