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Hospitals, nursing homes get deadly fungus alert from health officials

This undated photo from the Centers for Disease

This undated photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a strain of Candida auris cultured in a petri dish at a CDC laboratory. Photo Credit: AP / Shawn Lockhart

The state health commissioner issued an advisory to hospitals and nursing homes Friday about an emerging and potentially deadly fungus that can cause invasive infections and is resistant to multiple antifungal drugs.

Candida auris was considered a rare species, barely encountered by doctors less than a decade ago. But the organism seems to have borrowed a page from the superbug script, the rampant resistance of bacteria that has become a health care menace worldwide. C. auris can be resistant to some, or all three classes of antifungal medications, leaving doctors no options for ailing patients.

Worse, it tends to infect the sickest of the sick, experts say.

On Friday, State Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, issued a health advisory to hospitals and nursing homes throughout New York about the fungus and the need to abide by strict infection control measures.

“C. auris poses no risk to the general public,” Zucker said in a statement. “C. auris is an opportunistic infection which primarily impacts patients who are already ill for other reasons.”

Zucker said state health officials were “taking aggressive actions” to prevent the pathogen’s spread by bolstering surveillance measures first announced last summer, and again, last fall.

“This organism has not arrived out of the blue,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, who chairs the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside.

C. auris has been reported in multiple countries where it has been responsible for hospital outbreaks, he said.

The emerging strain was first identified in 2009 as the cause of a patient’s hard-to-treat ear infection in Japan. Since that time, C. auris has been reported in the United States as well as Colombia, India, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, Venezuela and Britain.

“I published a report about it six months ago in our department of medicine newsletter,” said Glatt who is also a national spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“This is a problem that’s out there, and unfortunately, it is not going away. It can be a colonizer as well as an infector,” Glatt said, explaining that some people can be carriers, having the organism harmlessly on their skin. In weak institutionalized patients, the drug resistant fungus has been known to invade the blood.

A major problem posed by the organism, Glatt said, is that it is not a simple task to run identifying tests on it because C. auris can be easily confused with other less harmful Candida species.

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have pinpointed the tristate area as a key region for the infections. The first U.S. case occurred in a New York patient in 2013, according to a November 2016 report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the CDC.

Although the CDC report focused on the types of illnesses affecting patients with C. auris, and did not name the city where the 2013 illness occurred, Zucker underscored in his announcement Friday that hospitals and nursing homes in Brooklyn and Queens would be under review for infection control compliance.

New York State health officials have tallied 53 cases since the organism was first reported in 2013. Health officials are also reviewing 18 so-called screening cases, which means patients are colonized but not showing clinical symptoms.

Health department officials also say C. auris has contributed to the deaths of 20 people in New York, the most recent reported last week, involving a patient in Rochester who originally was from New York City.

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