A super fungus could be the next global health threat – so are we ready?


Like all good thrillers, The Last of Us contains other grains of truth. Fungi, it suggests, can be spread through industrial food stores, for example. In August 1951, one in 20 of the 4,000 inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, a village in southern France, experienced hallucinations, vomiting and a terrible burning sensation in their limbs. They suffered from St. Anthony’s Fire, a disease common in the Middle Ages, caused by the ergot fungus. In this case, the fungus contaminated the rye flour used in making the villagers’ bread.

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“Ergot contains a chemical that drives sufferers mad and causes gangrene of the hands and feet by narrowing the blood supply to the extremities,” writes a description of the incident on Medicine.net. “If left untreated (and that was not possible in the Middle Ages), victims felt as if they were being burned at the stake, before their fingers, toes, hands and feet fell off”.

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There is also evidence that the incidence and geographic range of fungal diseases is increasing. For example, the Candida fungus, which causes common infections such as oral and vaginal thrush, has become increasingly resistant to treatment and more widespread. Only this month, a resistant mutation of the bacteria was found in Mississippi for the first time. The highly contagious infection can cause serious illness in people with weakened immune systems and has spread widely across America over the past decade.

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