The deadly fungi that infect over 3 million in SA every year…

More than three million South Africans are affected every year by deadly fungi. Researchers in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS) are now working on various research projects investigating new treatment options beyond the limited range of antifungals currently available. The research is being led by Professor Carlien Pohl-Albertyn, the National Research Forum (NRF) SARChl Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts. Speaking to BizNews, she says the problem is that these fungi are becoming drug resistant. Recently more fungal infections asre being contracted from contaminated water. “And a lot of people are warning that this may lead to problems down the line…because we have this population that is now more susceptible to fungal infections.”Chris Steyn

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:07 – Introductions
  • 00:34 – Professor Carlien Pohl-Albertyn on the fungi and which one’s are the most drug resistant
  • 02:01 – All these fungi spread. How do people pick them
  • 03:02 – On yeast and contaminated 
  • 04:12 – Illnesses you would get from drinking contaminated water with fungi in it
  • 05:36 – How many people die of all fungal infections across the world every year
  • 08:47 – Many people die of diseases that are not necessarily traced back to to a fungal infection
  • 08:55 – Why was it not a big health problem before the 1980s
  • 09:57 – Treatment is a complicating factor
  • 10:11 – How can the ordinary person just try and protect themselves from acquiring a fungal infection
  • 11:41 – Conclusions

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Highlights from the interview

More than three million South Africans are affected every year by deadly fungi.

Researchers in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS) are now working on various research projects investigating new treatment options beyond the limited range of antifungals currently available.

The research is being led by Professor Carlien Pohl-Albertyn, the National Research Forum (NRF) SARChl Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts.

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Speaking to BizNews, she says: “…the problem is they are becoming drug resistant. There’s currently only four drugs or drug classes that are used to treat fungal infections. And if you compare that to, for instance, the many different types of antibiotics for bacterial infections, you can start seeing the problems. So because certain drugs are used over and over and over again, these fungi are becoming drug resistant.”

Professor Pohl-Albertyn says one way of contracting fungal infections is from contact with contaminated water. “…that’s something that has been emerging recently. As you know, we have a lot of regulations about, for instance, drinking water in terms of bacterial contamination. So we have rules and regulations that say how many bacterial cells there may be, but we don’t have something similar for fungal cells, for yeast…

“And a lot of people are warning that this may lead to problems down the line…Because we have this population that is now more susceptible to fungal infections, if you are exposing them to fungi, for instance in drinking water, that could be a potential source of infection to these people. And we really feel that this should be regulated. But obviously in order to do that, we need to do a lot of research…|”

Complicating treatment is the fact that symptoms are “fairly non-specific” – and a fungal infection may not be diagnosed until it becomes life-threatening.

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“…the fungi can actually then enter the bloodstream and spread to basically any organ of the body. Some of them especially love the brain. But in those cases, you have very general symptoms initially, things like fever, you might have nausea, sort of those general….something is wrong, but you’re not quite sure what it is. And often, if you go to the doctor at that stage, you will be treated for a bacterial or a viral infection because that’s the go-to thing. It’s only after you are not responding to antibiotics, because remember, the fungi are not killed by antibacterial antibiotics. So it’s only after then that they would start looking for signs of fungal infection. And yeah, then it’s in many cases too late.”

As to how many millions of people die from fungal infections every year, Professor Pohl-Albertyn says: “So they estimate that it’s around 1.7 million people every year that die from fungal infection. The problem is that’s probably an underestimation, because…fungal infection is not a disease that you’re supposed to report, that’s legally required. And in many countries, especially in the poorer countries, there’s no real records that’s being kept of how many fungal infections there are, how many people die from fungal infections.”

Some of the yeasts being researched include: 

  • Candida auris – a multidrug-resistant yeast that can cause severe infections in humans, particularly in people who are hospitalised or have weakened immune systems. It was first identified in 2009 in Japan and has since been reported in over 49 countries. It can survive on surfaces in healthcare settings, which can contribute to its spread between patients, causing outbreaks in hospitals; and
  • Cryptococcus neoformans – an environmental yeast found in trees and soil contaminated with bird droppings. It can be airborne and when inhaled it lodges in the lungs and can cause primary lung infection. It also causes AIDS-defining illnesses in people living with HIV/AIDS.

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