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Mystery Virus Immune to Drugs is Sweeping The Globe


In May, an elderly man was admitted to the Brooklyn branch of Mount Sinai Hospital for abdominal surgery. A blood test revealed that he was infected with a newly discovered germ as deadly as it was mysterious. Doctors swiftly isolated him in the intensive care unit.

The germ, a fungus called Candida Auris, preys on people with weakened immune systems, and it is quietly spreading across the globe. Over the past five years, it has hit a neonatal unit in Venezuela, swept through a hospital in Spain, forced a prestigious British medical center to shut down its intensive care unit, and taken root in India, Pakistan and South Africa.

Recently C Auris reached New York, New Jersey and Illinois, leading the federal centers for disease control and prevention to add it to a list of germs deemed “urgent threats.”


The man at Mount Sinai died after 90 days in the hospital, but C Auris did not. Tests showed it was everywhere in his room, so invasive that the hospital needed special cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it.

“Everything was positive — the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump,” said Dr Scott Lorin, the hospital’s president. “The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive.”

C auris is so tenacious, in part, because it is impervious to major antifungal medications, making it a new example of one of the world’s most intractable health threats: the rise of drugresistant infections.

Simply put, fungi, just like bacteria, are evolving defenses to survive modern medicines.

Yet as the problem grows, it is little understood by the public — in part because the very existence of resistant infections is often cloaked in secrecy.

With bacteria and fungi alike, hospitals and local governments are reluctant to disclose outbreaks for fear of being seen as infection hubs. Even the CDC, under its agreement with states, is not allowed to make public the location or name of hospitals involved in outbreaks. State governments have in many cases declined to publicly share information beyond acknowledging that they have had cases.


All the while, the germs are easily spread — carried on hands and equipment inside hospitals; ferried on meat and manure-fertilized vegetables from farms; transported across borders by travelers and on exports and imports; and transferred by patients from nursing home to hospital and back.

Nearly half of patients who contract C Auris die within 90 days, according to the CDC. Yet the world’s experts have not nailed down where it came from in the first place.

“It is a creature from the black lagoon,” said Dr Tom Chiller, who heads the fungal branch at the CDC, which is spearheading a global detective effort to find treatments and stop the spread.

This hushed panic is playing out in hospitals around the world. Individual institutions and national, state and local governments have been reluctant to publicize outbreaks of resistant infections, arguing there is no point in scaring patients — or prospective ones.

In the US, 587 cases of people having contracted C Auris have been reported, concentrated with 309 in New York, 104 in New Jersey and 144 in Illinois, according to the CDC.

The symptoms — fever, aches and fatigue — are seemingly ordinary, but when a person gets infected, particularly someone already unhealthy, such commonplace symptoms can be fatal.

Workers who care for patients infected with C Auris worry for their own safety. Dr Matthew McCarthy, who has treated several C Auris patients at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, described experiencing an unusual fear when treating a 30-year-old man.

The mystery of Cauris’ emergence remains unsolved, and its origin seems, for the moment, to be less important than stopping its spread.
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