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The Global Killer You Don't Know About: Fungi Cause More Deaths Than Malaria, TB

Jul 12, 2016 12:53 AM EDT
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Most people are unaware that dangerous varieties of fungus are responsible for some 1.5 million deaths a year, killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria. That is two to three times the death toll caused by breast cancer.

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is seeking to highlight the relatively unknown fungi strains of Aspergillus, Cryptococcus and Candida auris that threaten lives around the globe. Professor Neil Gow, head of the Aberdeen Fungal Group at the University of Aberdeen, told IFLScience that the HIV-AIDS epidemic paved the way for the rise of several lethal fungal infections.

"That created a whole new population of people who were vulnerable to infections which otherwise their immune systems would have easily defended themselves against," he explained. Gow added that an estimated half a million people with HIV die from Cryptococcus infection every year, and the world of medical science is still catching up to the severity of the problem.

Vaccines do not yet exist to protect people from fungal diseases, warns the Royal Society. Nor are fungal infections only a concern in the developing world.

A new strain of the fungus Candida auris was first detected in Japan in 2009, and has struck in other places, including a hospital in southeastern England. Forty patients were found to have C. auris in that hospital alone.

"This species of Candida is emerging globally, Dr Berit Muller-Pebody of Public Health England told BBC News. C. auris is related to Candida albicans, the common yeast infection. Unlike it, C. auris has proved to be multidrug-resistant, even on being treated with first-line anti-fungal drugs. And it kills close to 60% of people infected, Medical Daily reports.

Aspergillus fumigatus spores are inhaled by people all the time, but the human immune system is very good at destroying these disease carriers. For those with compromised immune systems, however, the fungus is not only life-threatening but difficult to treat. It is resistant to anti-fungal medicines such as caspofungin, and scientists are still trying to figure out why.

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