Despite fungal infections affecting over a billion people globally, with some causing more deaths every year than tuberculosis or malaria, very little attention is given to them. Most people are shocked to learn that an estimated 1.5 million people are killed by these organisms worldwide, and yet little focus is given to them.
“As soon as we ask people about the diseases that they know about, we get lots of examples of viruses, or you’ll get examples of bacteria and parasites,” explains Professor Neil Gow, from the University of Aberdeen, to IFLScience. “But the three major organisms that we’re showcasing are virtually unknown by the general public.” Talking from the Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition where he and his colleagues are trying to increase public awareness, Professor Gow highlights three major groups of fungi that pose a threat: Aspergillus, Cryptococcus, and Candida.
From just these three organisms, over a million people are killed, Gow explained. Quite staggeringly, this is two to three times the number who succumb to breast cancer, and twice those who succumb to malaria. Yet despite these high numbers, fungal infections are not well known to the general public. This could be related to the fact that many of these life-threatening fungal infections are, medically speaking at least, a relatively new phenomenon.
“Firstly, HIV-AIDS changed everything,” says Gow. “That created a whole new population of people who were vulnerable to infections which otherwise their immune systems would have easily defended themselves against.” There are now thought to be over half a million people who have HIV that die every year due to infections of the Cryptococcus fungus, a yeast that affects the brain and brain stem. "Because HIV has only been around relatively recently, there hasn’t been time to build up a population of scientists to deal with this problem.”
But this global issue of fungal infections is not one solely limited to the developing world. There are growing reports of a new strain of fungi causing outbreaks in hospitals. First detected in 2009 in Japan, the new strain of the fungus Candida auris has already been detected in 40 patients in a single hospital in south-east England, and is resistant to some of the first-choice anti-fungal drugs. With only four different classes of anti-fungal drugs in existence, and no vaccine at all, it is easy to see how these organisms are a significant health challenge.
What we need now is for more scientists to start researching these organisms, in the hope that we can develop treatments and potentially save a large number of lives. The potential is there to develop new ways to fight these infections, but more people are needed to enter this emerging field and more attention is required from the healthcare community as a whole.