ATLANTA - Public health officials have a lot on their plate now: Outbreaks of measles and flu, soaring deaths from opioid overdoses, funding cuts. But for Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the scariest threats is a deadly fungus.
The lethal fungus, known as Candida auris, has has been identified in at least 61 people in the United States in recent years, mostly in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. It is not clear how many of the patients have died, but the fungus is considered highly dangerous. And Schuchat fears it could spread.
The superbug poses a "catastrophic threat" to the public, Schuchat told STAT in a recent interview.
Identified eight years ago in Japan, C. auris has spread around the world. It can infect wounds, infiltrate the bloodstream, and take root in the urinary tract, and it's resistant to many antifungal drugs.
Health officials have warned US clinicians to watch for the fungus in hospitals. Patients who have undergone recent surgery, used central venous catheters, or been hospitalized for lengthy periods, as well as those with diabetes, are particularly at risk. The fatality rate appears to be unusually high: About 60 percent of those who get infected with C. auris have died, the CDC said.
"Eradication of Candida auris from hospitals is very difficult and in some cases has led to closing hospital wards," Mahmoud Ghannoum, director of the Center for Medical Mycology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said upon releasing a study last month.
Drug resistant superbugs had greatly worried Schuchat's predecessor, Dr. Tom Frieden, too. He dubbed CREs - a bacteria known to scientists as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae - as a "nightmare bacteria," given its resistance to most antibiotics.
Schuchat believes health officials "have to do better with infection control" when it comes to containing superbugs of all kinds.
"This is a big threat and a wake-up call," she said. "It was a problem for Ebola. It was a problem for SARS. It's a problem for drug resistance."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of deaths in the US from C. auris.