The World Health Organization already has lists of the viruses and bacteria that pose the greatest risk to human health. Now, a new list from the UN agency, this one dedicated to threatening fungi. Reuters reports the 19 fungi on the WHO's radar—including Candida auris, which the CDC says often causes outbreaks in health care settings, and Aspergillus fumigatus, which can lead to serious airway and lung issues—are worrisome because infections caused by them are becoming increasingly resistant to drugs, and because there's a relative lack of research, diagnostics, and treatments focused on them. "The general public doesn't appreciate how serious fungal infections can be," a University of Notre Dame fungal infection expert tells the Wall Street Journal.
The WHO's debut list of "priority pathogens" is separated into three priority levels—medium, high, and critical, the latter of which contains C. auris and A. fumigatus, as well as Cryptococcus neoformans, which can cause fatal brain infections, and Candida albicans, the fungus that's responsible for thrush and yeast infections. Fungal infections are usually contracted by people who have serious illnesses like cancer or otherwise weakened immune systems. Such infections kill around 1.6 million people annually around the globe, according to Global Action for Fungal Infections. The CDC notes that upward of 75,000 people per year end up in the hospital in the US with a fungal infection, with nearly 7,200 related deaths last year.
There are only four classes of anti-fungal treatments available, with not many others in development, and diagnostic tools around the world are either hard to find or expensive. And while most healthy people generally don't get severely sick from fungi, the WHO notes fungi could become more effective infecting agents as they adapt to our warming climate. Agency officials are calling for more research. "We need more data and evidence on fungal infections and antifungal resistance to inform and improve response to these priority fungal pathogens," says the WHO's Haileyesus Getahun. (Read more fungus stories.)