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

  • David Erwin, 60, nearly died of a fungal infection in his brain, lungs and spine.
  • He had previously survived cancer and undergone chemotherapy, which put him at higher risk of infection.
  • The fungus that nearly killed him is found in many homes and backyards.

After surviving throat cancer, David Erwin was not improving.

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

Months later, a neurosurgeon removed a suspicious mass from his brain. The mass was not cancerous, but a common fungus: Aspergillus fumigatus, a species of mold found everywhere from flower beds to carpets.

Most people inhale mold spores without realizing it. Aspergillus typically grows both outside and inside homes, and public health experts say trying to avoid breathing it in is pointless.

But for immunocompromised people — 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 narrowly survived his infection, but the fungus that took hold of his brain and body remains a worrying pathogen, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization.

Bad fungi are a major threat to public health

The WHO released a list of health-threatening fungal pathogens on Tuesday, naming 19 species of fungi that pose a danger to public health.

Aspergillus was given the highest priority, along with a fungus that can cause meningitis and two species associated with yeast infections. The priority list is intended to establish a ranking for future research and medical development, as there are only four classes of drugs available to treat fungal infections.

Tracking 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 around the world. According to the WHO report, most fungus diagnostic tests are expensive and therefore reserved for high-income settings.

Fungal infections are particularly 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 United States

Although fungal infections are known to bring thousands of Americans to hospitals every year, there is still no formal surveillance system to track fungal illnesses in the United States.

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

The true impact of fungal infections may be much greater, as the disease burden has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are immunocompromised by COVID-19 or the drugs prescribed to treat it have a higher risk of getting secondary infections, such as aspergillosis, but they are not always counted.

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

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

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