We often see reports about the latest superbug in the news. Superbugs affect approximately two million people each year and of those, about 23,000 people will not survive. The term superbug refers to bacteria with resistance to once-effective antibiotics.
A recent article in UK’s Express Digest describes the emerging threat of treatment-resistant fungal infections. The threat also extends to food crops worldwide. There is also a major concern that if we see a global collapse of antifungal drugs we will also see a worldwide spread of disease.
The journal Science has published a paper warning of a rise of fungi strains that resist our common drugs.
We are surrounded by fungal spores (microscopic organisms). These spores are on the skin, in the air, the soil, in our food, and in our digestive systems. Even though millions of variations exist, they are mainly kept in check by our immune system.
They can, however, get out of control for many reasons such as an injury or illness. It is then that they invade the tissues in the body causing pain and inflammation.
Fungal infections can be mild such as those caused by the overgrowth of yeast (fungus). The mild infections include athlete’s foot or vaginal and oral thrush. The antifungal drugs used to control these mild infections are effective and are the most commonly used over-the-counter drugs.
Life-Threatening Fungal Infections
Fungal infections that are life-threatening are those that affect the blood, lungs, brain, eyes, bones, and heart. Most at risk include people who have a weak immune system, older adults, and newborns.
The threat to this population extends from severe infections and hospitalization to early death. The concern is that if antibiotic and antifungal policies are not established to slow the increase in drug resistance, even healthy people will join this risk category.
About Asthma Patients
Asthma affects about five million people in the U.K. Asthma is an incurable lung disease that also affects approximately one million children. This population of adults and children is especially at high risk of fungal infection in the lungs.
Manchester University’s Professor David Denning points out that steroids are not very effective in controlling asthma symptoms. Another Manchester study found that the lungs of asthmatics with severe asthma tend to contain tenfold the number of mold spores when using steroids. He emphasizes that there is a risk of fatal asthma attacks for some patients.
It is estimated that about 650,000 Britons with severe asthma often experience fungal lung infections. Asthma patient John Phillips, has had asthma since he was four years old. He has mainly used inhalers that tame bronchial spasms in his respiratory system. John has also used antifungal drugs with reasonable success for most of his life.
John’s specific disease is called aspergillosis. The disease results from inhaling aspergillus mould. These tiny spores grow in the lungs causing various allergic reactions including inflammation. Aspergillosis thrives in compost heaps as well as flowerbeds, soil, and plant matter that is decaying.
John was given high doses of steroids when his inhalers were no longer effective. The side effects of long-term steroid use include damage to bones. John’s side effects were bloating of his face and loss of sleep.
Initially, John’s daily azole pills worked, but in 2017 his symptoms worsened. It was then he was told that the spores in his lungs became drug resistant. He was put back on steroids. Now he is “just waiting” and hoping that his condition does not get worse. He is also aware that deadly complications could arise if the mold creates a tumour or the spores enter is bloodstream.
Azoles are of the most powerful drugs that has been used to kill the fungus. But now strains of the fungus have become immune to these drugs.
Most people are unaffected by the spores that we breathe in each day. However, the same spores have a dramatic effect on people who have asthma. People with severe asthma are at high risk. Once it takes hold they experience chest pain, fatigue, fever, breathlessness, and recurring infections.
An identical class of azoles are used in farming as a method of protecting crops from rotting. Experts believe that they are overused in agriculture and blame this overuse for the increase in super-fungi.
Another possibility is the extensive use of fungicide for flower bulbs. Studies of London’s flowerbeds discovered resistant fungal strains. Scientists appreciate that farmers rely on the use of fungicides. However, they emphasize that its use must be reduced.
Superbugs and Cystic Fibrosis
Macauley Tinston is a twenty-two-year-old Wellingborough resident who was diagnosed when he was eleven years old with a genetic lung disorder called cystic fibrosis. The disease is characterized by an accumulation of thick, sticky mucus in the lungs. Patients become vulnerable to various types of respiratory infections. Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening disease.
Severe cases like John and Macauley’s put an emphasis on the urgent need for new antifungal drugs and improved diagnosis. Prof. Denning warns that it will be a while before these new drugs will be available.