The overuse of antibiotics in medicine and farming has become a major issue, because bacteria have become immune to them and cause infections that are very hard to treat.
But bacteria are not the only type of pathogen to resist drugs. Fungi have likewise learned to do this trick.
In a disturbing paper, researchers argue that drug-resistant strains of fungus are arising, in a process that mirrors what we’ve seen in bacteria.
Fungi not only destroy crops; human deaths from fungal diseases worldwide now exceed those of malaria and breast cancer. Keep reading for the full story. . .
The Threat is Serious and Immediate
There are around a quarter of a million species of fungi on our planet, but only 300 or so can make us sick. As with bacteria, there are helpful fungi that live in the human body, and others that can cause harm.
Common fungal infections include athlete’s foot, jock itch, vaginal thrush and ringworm. These can all be treated successfully. But there’s a growing threat of other infections that are much more difficult to overcome.
This was brought to public attention when an international team of researchers led by Imperial College London, with the backing of Britain’s Medical Research Council, aired their concerns last year.
They warned that unless new treatments are found, the situation could get out of control.
Incurable Fungus Infections
Raising the alarm was the first author of the paper, Matthew Fisher, Professor of Fungal Disease Epidemiology, who said, “The threat of antimicrobial resistance is well established in bacteria, but has largely been neglected in fungi. The scale of the problem has been, until now, under-recognized and under-appreciated, but the threat to human health and the food chain are serious and immediate.”
He added, “Fungi are a growing threat to human and crop health as new species and variants spread around the world, so it is essential that we have means to combat them.
“However, the very limited number of anti-fungal drugs means that the emergence of resistance is leading to many common fungal infections becoming incurable.”
Aspergillus – a Heavy Duty Pathogen
The British group’s paper, published in the journal Science, emphasized that not only do fungi destroy nearly a third of all crops worldwide, but the rise in the rate of resistance to anti-fungal drugs is “unprecedented” and the impact on human health is “spiraling.”
Because fungi are more genetically similar to humans than bacteria, it’s difficult to produce a drug aimed at a fungus that won’t potentially cause great harm to us as well, so only four classes of anti-fungals are available for human use.
Fungi are also much better than bacteria at becoming airborne. In fact, according to professor Neil Gow, President of the Microbiology Society, we inhale between 100 and 300 spores of just one species — aspergillus — every day.
Professor Fisher calls this “a heavy-duty pathogen.” It’s found in the soil, air, food, decaying organic material and damp walls.
Who’s at Risk?
This species carries no threat to anyone who remains in good health. The immune cells in the lungs will mop up the microbes and kill them. But aspergillus can be a problem for those with serious lung conditions.
There’s also nothing a fungus likes more than suppressed immune systems. Patients who have received a transplant, and those with cancer and HIV/AIDS, are especially vulnerable.
However, even otherwise healthy young adults — as many as one in five — can be infected while being hospitalized with a severe flu infection.
Late last year the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than one-third of flu patients with invasive aspergillus infections — called aspergillosis — were otherwise healthy, with no documented immunosuppressive condition.
These were people with healthy immune systems who first caught the flu, then got aspergillosis.
Tulip Bulb and Compost Heap Warning
Surprisingly, almost no drug-resistant species of aspergillus were found by researchers in farmers’ crop fields in the UK. Instead, they were discovered in woods, public gardens and parks across southern England.
They were also found in flower beds containing tulips, daffodils and crocuses. That’s because these bulbs are sprayed with anti-fungal chemicals. Drug resistance creates hotspots in the plants for incubating and releasing aspergillus spores into the atmosphere.
Professor Fisher not only warned people with compromised immune systems to steer clear of these bulbs, he even issued a warning about compost heaps.
“Compost heaps are absolutely lethal if you don’t have fully functioning innate immunity,“ he said. Composting is a popular practice among gardening fans. I keep a garden myself, but I’m not into composting because I’m concerned it may attract pests.
At-risk patients need to heed Prof. Fisher’s warnings. Healthy people with intact immune systems have nothing to fear. Maintaining strong immunity is vital to ward off any pathogen, but especially fungi.
Some of the best and most researched supplements for the immune system include beta glucans, n-acetyl cysteine (NAC), glutathione, vitamins B6, B12, C and D, zinc, elderberry, astragalus, echinacea and probiotics.
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