A man almost died from an Aspergillus fungal infection that colonized the brain

A man almost died from an Aspergillus fungal infection that colonized the brain

  • David Erwin, 60, nearly died from a fungal infection of his brain, lungs and spine.
  • He had previously survived cancer and completed chemotherapy, which put him at greater risk of infection.
  • The fungus that almost killed him can be found in many homes and yards.

After surviving a bout of throat cancer, David Erwin was not getting any better.

Erwin, now 60, completed chemotherapy in 2020 The Wall Street Journal reported. Even after doctors gave him the all-clear, he said he continued to experience symptoms including debilitating back pain and partial paralysis.

Months later, a neurosurgeon would remove the suspicious mass from his brain. The mass was not cancer, but a simple fungus: Aspergillus fumigatus, a type of mold that was found everywhere from the flower garden on carpets.

Most people inhale mold spores without realizing it. Aspergillus commonly grows outdoors and in households, public health experts say there is no point in trying to avoid inhalation.

But for people who are immunocompromised — like Erwin, whose immune system has been weakened by chemotherapy — these fungi pose a more acute threat. In Erwin’s case, Aspergillus found a home not only in his brain, but also in his lungs and spine.

Erwin barely survived the infection, but the fungus that invaded his brain and body remains a troubling pathogen, according to a recent World Health Organization report.

Bad fungi are a major threat to public health

WHO published the list fungal pathogens that threaten health on Tuesday, he named 19 types of mushrooms that pose a threat to public health.

Aspergillus was assigned the highest level of priority, along with fungi that can cause meningitis and two species associated with fungal infections. The priority list aims to establish an order for future research and medical development, as there are only four classes of drugs available to treat yeast infections.

Monitoring and treating fungal infections has also proven to be a global challenge, as many of the tests used to identify them are not widely available worldwide. Most diagnostic tests for fungi are expensive and therefore reserved for high-income settings, according to the WHO report.

Fungal infections are especially dangerous for patients who are already seriously ill: those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, and chronic lung infections. A growing number of people are immunocompromised due to treatments such as chemotherapy or drugs taken with organ transplants, experts told the WSJ.

Fungal infections in the US

Although fungal infections are known to land thousands of Americans in hospitals each year, there is not yet an official surveillance system for tracking fungal diseases in the US.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 75,000 people in the US hospitalized for fungal infections every year, and that at least 20% of these infections are caused by Aspergillus mold.

The actual impact of yeast infections can be much greater, as just the burden of disease increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are immunocompromised due to COVID-19 or drugs prescribed to treat it have a higher risk of contracting secondary infections, such as aspergillosis, but these are not always accounted for.

More than 7,000 deaths in 2021 were at least partially explained by yeast infections, according to the National Vital Statistics System.

Last monthThe CDC urged patients and healthcare providers to consider fungi as an explanation for infections that do not respond to treatment, which could lead to more diagnoses in the future.

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