The terrifying specter of pandemic superbugs has loomed in the public consciousness for years, thanks to a barrage of warnings by public health experts on the increasing antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria.
Yet the same phenomenon has also been occurring among species of pathogenic fungi, albeit a bit farther out of the spotlight.
Now, following the alarmingly rapid emergence of multi-drug resistance in many previously controllable human and crop plant-targeting strains, the scientific community is issuing a rallying cry.
Writing in a special issue of Science, an international team of researchers declared:
“To avoid a global collapse in our ability to control fungal infections and to avoid critical failures in medicine and food security, we must improve our stewardship of extant chemicals, promote new antifungal discovery, and leverage emerging technologies for alternative solutions.”
“Today, crop-destroying fungi account for perennial yield losses of ~20% worldwide, with a further 10% loss postharvest. Fungal effects on human health are currently spiraling, and the global mortality rate for fungal diseases now exceeds that for malaria or breast cancer and is comparable to those for tuberculosis and HIV.”
Fungal infections are transmitted through microscopic single-cell spores that can survive for long periods of time outside of a host, lying dormant in soil or water and easily kicked up into the air.
Because the Earth is quite literally covered by fungal organisms, the human immune system has evolved pretty solid defenses against most internal intruders.
The real danger arises for people with compromised immune systems – AIDS patients, the elderly, and people on medications for organ transplants, for example – or lung diseases (spores typically invade through the lungs). Once inside the body, unchecked fungal cells invade other organs – including the brain – and induce deadly inflammation by excreting toxins.