the killer fungi are coming for us thanks to global warming
As we’re still living through a pandemic, no matter what politicians and pundits who want it to be over keep telling us, we’ve learned a bit about what scientists consider to be one of the biggest and most potent dangers to our health in the future. For the time being, we have microbes and flu under control. We’re working on a broad-spectrum vaccine against coronaviruses, so we don’t have another surprise like COVID. The only thing left are fungi, some of which are dangerous and incredibly hard to treat but can’t survive in our bodies. Or so we hoped.
Unfortunately, as the planet warms thanks to our pollution, some researchers worry that very nasty fungal spores could start tolerating higher temperatures well enough that our tissues will become hospitable environments. Ordinarily, the heat of our 98.6 °F, or 37 °C, organs would be more than hot enough to kill fungal infections thanks to evolutionary selection. But if that’s no longer enough, doctors worry that we have few tools to fight these fungal invaders, and some of our measures of last resort have trouble differentiating between the fungus and us.
With more and more fungal spores that can opportunistically infect people with weakened or compromised immune systems spread to new territories, four species in particular are on the rise. In 2021, over 75,000 patients in the U.S. have been hospitalized as a result of their spores and registered a mortality rate of nearly 1 in 10, with doctors worried about resistance to old anti-fungal medications making up their arsenals. How worse could the problem get? A recent study of fungi that cause serious lung infections shows increasing cause for alarm.
Over the past 60 years, the Histoplasma fungus which causes histoplasmosis spread from the American Midwest and parts of the Southeast to nearly all states. Coccidioides, responsible for Valley Fever along the border of the Southwestern U.S., is now in at least 35 states. The lung ravaging Blastomyces? It left the Midwest and expanded to some 40 states. But none of them can even hold a candle to Candida, originally discovered in Japan, which spread to 47 countries ranging from South America, to Africa, to Siberia and the Far East.
Of course, the worst thing we can do about this is panic. First of all, we can still clean up our acts and slow down global warming and climate change. Secondly, we need to make it a clear priority to train more primary care doctors on fungal diseases. Third, invest in more research into threatening strains and anti-fungal medication. And fourth, take this threat very seriously and make sure we minimize our chances of developing these infections with good hygiene and exercise. Experts are ringing the alarm bells once again. This time we need to listen.
See: Mazi, Patrick, et al. (2022) The geographic distribution of dimorphic mycoses in the United States for the modern era, Clinical Infectious Diseases, ciac882, DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciac882