Before COVID-19, an entirely different kind of infection had hospitals all over the globe completely spooked.
The threat behind that infection is, by one estimate, responsible for 300 million cases and 1.6 million deaths per year.
That’s more than malaria.
And when COVID started overwhelming hospitals and shutting down the country, it was all medical hands on deck. Those who were researching the original scare had to pause and pivot.
Even though by the end of 2019, there had been some 1,500 documented cases in the U.S. When COVID hit, the pivoted researchers got very curious very quickly about what effect the coronavirus infection and its treatment would have on their previous focus…
From the looks of it?
We might be in big trouble.
In fact, this threat is so ubiquitous that every human on the planet inhales around 1,000 molecules of it every single day.
What are we talking about?
Fungus – and the spores that live on our skin and enter our bodies through our breath, our food, our wounds. There are myriad reasons that fungus is much more frightening now than it ever has been. After all, we know to be afraid of viruses and bacteria, to wash hands and take antibiotics when we’re sick.
But how prepared are we for an attack from the fungal kingdom?
Fungus Sidestepped Human Hubris
We’ve always been confused about fungus. For a long time, we classified fungi as plants – until we made the very important distinction that plants require external resources to reproduce, while fungi don’t.
Fungi are capable of decimating plant life. 20% of the world’s crop supply is destroyed by fungi every year.
Wildlife disease caused by fungi is well-known enough that farmers and other plant-based occupations plan against fungus havoc.
But human disease caused by fungi is simply not studied and feared the same way.
There are about six million discovered species of fungus. Of those, around 300 have been found to cause disease in humans. (That means there are likely more than 300.)
And they’re moving.
Because of deforestation, clearing land for crops, advanced intraglobe travel and shipping, introducing fungus to fungicides that end up strengthening their resistance, and we warm the climate which means that fungus learn to adapt to a new temperature.
That’s not great for us, because our warm body temperature has long been a barrier between fungus and us.
That’s why we tend to get fungal infections outside of our bodies, because our skin is cooler than the insides of our bodies.
When you think about how many more people are living with lowered immune function than there used to be (a pre-condition for fungi to really wrench itself into someone’s body) and the fact that strains are becoming stronger predators…
Combined with the last year of immuno-suppressant activity (COVID-19 itself, its treatment, and its prevention)…
Here’s what we’re in for.
One Breath Starts it All
Often, when you inhale spores from a deadly fungus, they can bud inside of your organs. It’s easier for them to make it that far if your immune defenses are already down.
Meet Candida auris. This is the strain that was worrying epidemiologists before the pandemic… and has them even more worried now. C. auris doesn’t function like other fungi – balancing the gut and escaping into the bloodstream when a patient has leaky gut or an imbalanced immune system.
It can pass from person to person, and it can live on metal, plastic, fabric, and paper surfaces.
C. auris has been identified in 40 countries and 6 continents.
The trouble is that antifungals are often bad for us. Our molecular make-up is similar to fungus, and therefore drugs that attack fungus often attack us too.
Up to 2/3s of people who contracted C. auris died from it. It tends to live in hospitals, on cold, steel surfaces, and it’s resistant to most antifungals. But that isn’t the only fungus doctors are getting worried about.
Aspergillus, they say, is worse because it lives everywhere. The fungus works especially well when immune systems that are already suppressed are unable to clear spores away from the lungs.
It ravaged patients hospitalized with the coronavirus in at least nine countries, again resulting in up to 2/3s of those patients dying.
Because it’s so difficult to develop a drug that will fight fungus and not hurt its molecularly-similar hosts, scientists believe the way forward is to develop vaccines against the most damaging fungi.
Just like with antibiotics, it’ll be a cat-and-mouse game of researchers trying to gauge threats and get out ahead of them before they become unmanageable.
In the meantime, we have to do everything we can to ensure that our immune systems are healthy and strong.
But we also cannot contract anything that would require immune system suppression in order to treat.
Best to be on guard against the silent invasion of the forgotten kingdom.