Get ready: Warning ‘dangerous’ US superbug will come to NZ

Fri, Mar 24

An infectious diseases physician has warned that a "dangerous bug" that's been spreading quickly in the US will eventually affect New Zealand.

But he said local authorities had the opportunity to prepare for the fungus and that there were control measures available for outbreaks.

The fungus, Candida auris, doesn't endanger healthy people, but can make people with weak immune systems suffer severe illness and die.

It was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has been seen in more and more countries. The first US case occurred in 2013, but it was not reported until 2016.

Speaking to Breakfast, Otago University biochemistry professor Kurt Krause said that the fungus has "some elements of a superbug" and that it was certainly a "dangerous bug".

"The number of cases in the US - which used to hover around a few hundred - shot up in the last couple of years to where there were about 6000 in 2022," he said.

"Those numbers shot up during the Covid epidemic because our hospitals were sort of being overcrowded, and Candida auris really loves to live in hot, overcrowded hospital situations.

"It's very, very difficult to eradicate. It gets on bed surfaces, bed railings, windows, and gets picked up and gets transmitted. That's the big problem."

Krause said the fungus was both "very difficult" to treat and difficult to diagnose.

"The people that get it and get sick are in nursing homes, they're in hospitals. They're very, very sick, ill people."

Additionally, the expert said that healthy people could be infectious through their skin for days or even months without knowing they were exposing others — a state known as colonisation as opposed to infection.

"Mostly healthy people aren't so much at risk for having a serious infection, but they can carry it on their skin. This particular fungus loves to grow on skin and also tends to shed from skin. So, the problem is sort of unwitting transmission."

As for Aotearoa, he said there were concerns that healthcare workers could unintentionally import the fungus from the US and that authorities needed to be prepared to treat it.

"It would be great if we could figure out a way to keep it out of New Zealand, or once it gets into New Zealand to figure out the best way to control it," he said.

"What is possible is that healthcare workers who work in facilities like that in the US might actually be colonised and bring it over.

"If you're in a nursing home and you've got it on you or you have that infection, those people are not likely to be coming to New Zealand."

The professor said it was important that doctors knew about the fungus.

"The CDC in the US actually has a poster called 'think fungus'. And it sounds silly, but what it means is that you have to keep in mind, 'could your patient have a fungus infection?'.

"So a high index of suspicion, and you have to make sure that your clinical microbiologist and the clinical microbiology lab are set up to culture for it," he said.

"I think we're able to do all those things, but we've got to get sort of ramped up because it will be coming here. So we just have to be ready and have plans in place."


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