Indian man is world’s first person to contract fungal infection from a plant

Toxic mould fungus (Stachybotrys chartarum), coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) - DENNIS KUNKEL MICROSCOPY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Toxic mould fungus (Stachybotrys chartarum), coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) - DENNIS KUNKEL MICROSCOPY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

A 61-year-old man has become the first person in the world to contract a plant fungal disease, amid heightened concerns about the threat they pose due to climate change and resistance to available treatments.

The unnamed man, who worked as a plant mycologist, went to hospital in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata after suffering from a hoarse voice, cough, fatigue and difficulties swallowing for three months.

Scans revealed the man had a paratracheal abscess on his neck, and when pus samples were sent for testing, it emerged that he had been infected with Chondrostereum purpureum – the same fungus that causes silver leaf disease in plants.

The infection comes after the hit show ‘The Last of Us' – which is inspired by a real-life bacteria that turns ants into ‘zombies’ and can wipe out entire colonies – has raised the public profile of fungal diseases.

In this case, the 61-year-old made a full recovery after receiving two antifungal medications for two months. However, the infection has alarmed public health experts as it was not previously thought that fungal spores in plants could infect human beings.

It is believed the man had come into contact with the fungus while carrying out research in his job, which had brought him into contact with decaying plants and mushrooms over a long period of time.

“There are literally hundreds of millions of fungal species and only a fraction that cause infections in humans but we are starting to see this strange phenomena of fungal infections that were not known to cause infections in humans, now causing infections,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, the Founder and President of the One Health Trust.

“Obviously it is of concern about where the next pandemic is coming from and it could be caused by a fungal pathogen. But, thankfully, at the moment we don’t have very effective transmission from person to person.”

Millions of fungal infections exist but scientists have only identified around 150,000. A handful can currently survive within the human body, such as Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can cause pneumonia-like symptoms.

Yet, according to the Global Action Fund for Fungal Infections, 300 million people are affected by serious fungal pathogens each year, resulting in 1.6 million deaths.

The pandemic has also exacerbated this threat. In 2021, at least 45,000 people in India who had developed Covid-19 contracted a secondary fungal infection, Mucormycosis, known as “black fungus”, resulting in over 4,500 deaths.

The coronavirus also diverted resources away from researching and treating lesser-known fungal pathogens. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of Candida auris infections, which can infect the bloodstream and central nervous system, tripled from 476 to 1,471 in the United States, for example.

Fungal infections are expected to pose a greater threat to human beings in the years to come due to growing resistance to the small number of treatments available and rising temperatures, caused by climate change.

Warmer temperatures could allow fungi to adapt more easily to survive within the human body and existing fungal infections could spread to new geographic areas.

Last October, the World Health Organisation published the first watchlist highlighting the 19 most worrying pathogens, in the hope it would spur more investment into potential treatments and interventions to reduce the threat they pose.

Among them was mycetoma – a “devastating” chronic condition that slowly eats away at flesh and has been described as a “real life Last of Us” infection.

Mostly detected in an arid region around Sudan, where it is spread by a thorn prick from an acacia tree, the disease remains poorly understood. There are no approved treatments, meaning amputation is often the only option to save lives.

But on Thursday, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) announced an initiative to support the registration and rollout of a new drug, fosravuconazole, found to be safe, effective and easy to administer in recent large scale trials.

“For decades, people affected by mycetoma have been largely ignored by medical research,” said Dr Borna Nyaoke, Head of Mycetoma Programme at DNDi.

“Until now, the limited treatments available for eumycetoma showed poor efficacy, even after 12 months of treatment.”

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