guardian | “Fungi are everywhere,” said Prof Gordon Brown, head of the Aberdeen mycology centre.
“We breathe in more than 100 spores of aspergillus every day. Normally our immune systems mop them up but, when our disease defences are compromised – for example, during cancer treatments or after traumatic injuries – they lose the ability to fight back.
“Fungi can spread through patients’ bodies and into their spines and brains. Patients who would otherwise survive treatments are dying every year from such infections.”
This point was also stressed by Prof Neil Gow, another Aberdeen researcher. “Essentially fatal fungal infections are diseases of the diseased,” he said.
In addition, premature babies and patients with the inherited condition cystic fibrosis are also vulnerable.
However, the problem is even worse in developing countries. In sub-Saharan nations, where millions are infected with HIV – which causes severe depletion of patients’ immune systems – infections with cryptococcus and pneumocystis fungi account for more than half a million deaths a year.
“The total global number of fungal deaths is about the same as the number of deaths from malaria but the amount that is spent on fungal infection research is only a fraction of the cash that goes on malaria research,” added Gow.
A vaccine that could protect against fungal disease has yet to be developed, while the rise of resistance to the class of medicines known as azole drugs is causing alarm among doctors.
Recent reports from the US and Europe indicate that resistance to azole drugs is increasing in both aspergillus and candida fungi. The widespread use of agricultural fungicides to protect crops and their use in some paints and coatings has been linked to the rise of this resistance.