A little-known fungus called Candida auris has been making big news lately. We spoke with infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Citronberg at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., to get the facts on this fungus and find out what people need to know to keep themselves and their families safe.
What is Candida auris?
Dr. Citronberg: Candida auris, or C. auris, is one of 20 species of the Candida fungus that can cause infection in humans. People may be familiar with “thrush” in babies, which is a type of candida fungus that settles in the mouth and throat. C. auris settles in the bloodstream, wounds or ears and can cause infections.
Is this a new fungus? Why is it getting so much attention?
C. auris was first identified globally in 2009 and has been in the U.S. for a few years. It is the newest of the “super bugs” (though it actually is a yeast), and the CDC has identified it as an emerging threat because of its growing resistance to antifungal drugs commonly used to treat Candida infections.
How do people get C. auris?
C. auris lives in the environment around us, and people can carry it on their skin or inside their body without it making them sick. It’s when the fungus colonizes that it can spread from their bodies to other people or nearby surfaces or objects. It can cause symptoms when it enters the bloodstream and lead to infection.
Who is at risk for getting C. auris?
Healthy people living at home are at little to no risk of contracting C. auris. Rather, C. auris typically affects the sickest of the sick – people with already low immunity who have been on antibiotics for a long time, who have health complications and have spent time in long-term care with tubes placed in their bodies, such as breathing tubes, feeding tubes and catheters.
Can people die from C. auris?
Patients with compromised immune systems and chronic conditions who contract a bloodstream infection from C. auris or other type of organism are at greater risk of death because the infection can impact the heart or brain. Sometimes death isn’t caused by the organism itself, but by the serious health complications that can occur. This means some people can die with the infection in their systems, rather than directly from it.
Why am I hearing about outbreaks in health care settings?
Sick patients in long-term care facilities, who are at greatest risk for contracting C. auris, are often transferred between sites. So these are the settings where we would most likely see C. auris appear.
How do health care settings control the spread of C. auris?
With any type of contagious organism, the goal is to break the chain of potential transmission. For C. auris specifically, hospitals that receive high-risk patients (i.e. those with tracheostomy or mechanical ventilators) from long-term care facilities immediately put them into isolation, and all providers wear protective equipment and practice hand hygiene to stop the chance of spreading it between people and surfaces. Hospital-grade antimicrobial cleaning agents are used throughout the stay, and rooms are thoroughly cleaned following discharge. Health care facilities work closely with public health departments to ensure potential cases are identified, tracked and treated according to standard procedures and protocols.
What if I have to visit someone in a health care facility who may have C. auris?
If you’re a generally healthy person, you are at little to no risk of contracting C. auris. However, you could carry it from a health care facility elsewhere. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching the patient or medical devices.
Can anything be done to eradicate C. auris?
In order to eradicate drug-resistant organisms like C. auris, we need to tackle the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics can be very effective when used appropriately, but overuse and extended use allows harmless organisms to mutate and become drug resistant. Even one course of antibiotics can lower your immunity in the future. Be sure to talk with your health care provider on the benefits and risks of antibiotics should you need them.