When you hear the words "yeast infection," you probably think of thrush, or something that makes women's vaginas itchy and can be cured with an OTC cream. What we're talking about here is far more serious: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted its concern about a type of yeast called Candida auris, an emerging fungus with drug-resistant strains that "presents a serious global health threat." Yikes.
Typically, fungus stays put in a local environment and the majority of fungal infections are harmless ones on your skin that are more annoying than anything else. The problem with C. auris, however, is that it behaves more like bacteria in its ability to spread to other places, says Tom Chiller, an infectious disease specialist and chief of the CDC's Mycotic Diseases Branch. The yeast has caused wound and ear infections and can enter the bloodstream, a potentially life-threatening condition known as candidemia.
There have been 53 reported cases of C. auris in the US since May 2013; 34 of them in New York state and 13 in New Jersey. (It's also in 15 countries around the world.) Some strains of the fungus are resistant to all three major classes of antifungal drugs—a phenomenon known as multidrug-resistance, which can make treatment difficult. The CDC notes that 60 percent of these patients have died, but they had other serious illnesses at the time, so it's impossible to say whether C. auris was the cause of death.
The yeast has been found in healthcare facilities and those at risk are most often immunocompromised, like people who have diabetes, who've had recent surgery or lengthy hospital stays, had a central venous catheter to deliver medication, and have been on a broad-spectrum antibiotic or antifungal, notes the CDC.
It can spread from person to person or from contact with contaminated surfaces and equipment in healthcare settings. But, deep breaths: C. auris is rare, particularly if you don't fit into any of the above risk groups. "This is not something I want the average healthy person to worry about," says Chiller. "It's getting the sickest of the sick, but that's why we need to get the word out—we want to keep this rare," he says.
Here's how you can do your part. When visiting friends or family in the hospital (or if you're admitted yourself), ask the doctors and nurses if they washed their hands before treating you or loved ones. (You can do it in a non-accusatory way; lots of hospitals post signs and have staffers wear buttons encouraging patients to ask.) When a doctor prescribes you an antibiotic, ask if it's really needed—it may not be. After all, the CDC says one in three antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. Limiting unnecessary use of antibiotics helps fight drug resistance.
"Infectious diseases know no borders or boundaries. They spread rapidly and easily across countries and the whole world—especially in today's interconnected world," Chiller says. "This fungus happens to be one of those."
Update 5/19/17: The CDC notes that the bug seems to be spreading. As of May 12, there were 77 reported cases of C. auris: 53 in New York, 16 in New Jersey, four in Illinois, one in Indiana, one in Maryland, one in Massachusetts, and one in Oklahoma.