New superbug kills 3 and closes ICU

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A deadly new superbug has emerged in the UK, forcing the closure of a major National Health Service intensive care unit after three deaths.

The Daily Telegraph reports that almost 50 patients have been afflicted with the rare fungus which can sweep through the bloodstream causing infections and death.

Thirteen patients – including three who died – have fallen victim to the infection at a major London hospital while 34 more have been identified as carriers of the pathogen.

The report says the fungus, called Candida auris – was first found in Japan in 2009, in a patient’s ear. Since then it has spread rapidly round the globe, emerging in South Africa, Kuwait, India, Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela and South Korea. Global studies have found six in ten of those infected with the fungus die, though it has not been possible to prove whether the bug has caused the deaths.

The report says health officials are particularly worried about the bug because of its propensity to transmit between hospital patients. It has also shown resistance to the three main classes of anti-fungal treatment.

The world-renowned Royal Brompton Hospital Trust has admitted that it was forced to close its intensive care unit for almost two weeks last month as it battled the deadly infection, the report says. The hospital said it was impossible to know whether the infection contributed to the deaths of patients, whose immune systems were severely compromised. Despite instituting a “deep clean” and transferring desperately sick patients out of the west London unit, the infection has maintained its hold. A number of patients have had surgery delayed.

The report says the trust would not comment on the type of patients affected, but the Brompton is Europe’s largest centre for cystic fibrosis.

Candida auris comes from the same family of fungi that causes thrush. But while that can get into the genitals and mouth, C.auris gets into the urinary and respiratory tract, from where it can get to the blood stream.

Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said the development was “really bad news” for those being treated in intensive care. “Candida is in itself a normal fungus which can be found in various places in the body, most notably as thrush.

“When that happens, it’s a nuisance but it’s not life-threatening. It becomes life-threatening in the situations we are seeing here, where it is infecting patients whose immune system is down,” he said. Treating such patients was extremely challenging, he warned. “It is very difficult to treat, not least because the treatment is so heavily toxic, and the patients are already so ill,” Pennington said. “If you are already at death’s door, which is often the case in intensive care, then this is really bad news.” The fungus is usually picked up from surfaces or from skin, he said. “When you are seeing these numbers of cases, you need to look at infection control – the basics, washing the hands,” he said.

He said it was vital for health officials to act quickly to reduce the risk of a repeat of major health threat, such as that seen with MRSA. “It’s a serious concern,” he said.

Dr Berit Muller-Pebody, antimicrobial resistance section head at Public Health England, said health officials were taking the risks “extremely seriously” and had issued guidance to NHS trusts.

Full report in The Daily Telegraph

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