The incidence of fungal infections is on the rise in the United States, yet there is no vaccine available to protect against them. Unlike bacterial or viral illnesses, fungal infections cannot be prevented through vaccination. While scientists do not anticipate a fungal pandemic like the one portrayed in the popular television series “The Last of Us,” these infections remain a significant cause for concern. Fungi are responsible for a vast array of illnesses in humans, from the mild discomfort of athlete's foot to life-threatening bloodstream infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fungal infections are behind over 75,000 hospitalizations and close to 9 million outpatient visits each year in the US. In 2021, approximately 7,200 people passed away due to fungal diseases, a number the CDC believes is likely underestimated. One particularly dangerous fungus, Candida auris, is resistant to all treatments and is a threat to hospitalized and nursing home patients. This fungus was first discovered in Japan in 2009 and has since spread to over 30 countries, including the US.
Impact of climate change!.. Climate change also contributes to the increasing prevalence of fungal infections, as some fungi are more prevalent in specific environmental conditions. For instance, the fungus that causes Valley fever is thriving in hot, dry soil, while histoplasmosis prefers high humidity. These infections can be a major public health concern and highlight the importance of continued research and development of effective treatments and preventive measures.
Norris and her team are currently focused on developing a vaccine to protect against the three fungi responsible for the majority of fatal fungal infections in the U.S.: Aspergillus, Candida, particularly Candida auris, and Pneumocystis. The experimental vaccine has shown promising results in preclinical trials, and with funding support, human vaccine trials could start and finish within the next five years.
Development is on its way!.. In Arizona, researchers are focused on developing a vaccine to prevent Valley fever, a lung infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides, which is becoming an "emerging threat" due to climate change expanding its range. The vaccine has been shown to be effective in dogs, according to John Galgiani, the director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. The development of a vaccine to prevent fungal infections is crucial for public health and highlights the importance of continued research and funding in this area.
The Investment Factor… Fungal vaccines have not been developed quickly due to a lack of funding and a perception that they are not a critical need. Experts know which fungi to target, but the development of a vaccine has been slow. The author, Galgiani, is working on a Valley fever vaccine trial for humans, but the lack of funding and priority for respiratory viruses such as Covid, flu, and measles have limited progress. These viruses infect millions of people and lead to hospitalizations and deaths worldwide, highlighting the importance of vaccines for preventing these diseases.