(CNN)What do you think of when you hear the word fungi? Mushrooms? Athlete’s foot? General mold?
Whatever comes to mind, the fact is that when most of us think of fungal infections, we think of something mild and unpleasant at best.
But these tiny organisms can be fatal and kill an estimated 1.5 million people globally each year. It’s a shockingly high figure and is greater than the number of people who die from malaria, more than twice the number of women who die from breast cancer, and an equivalent number to those who die from tuberculosis, or HIV, each year, according to professor Neil Gow, President of the Microbiology Society.
Many healthy people also naturally carry the species of yeast-like Candida fungi in, and on, their bodies, without it being harmful. Candida can also cause superficial infections like vaginal thrush and while this is treatable, it remains a burden for many, with 100 million women suffering four or more episodes annually.
But even seemingly mild fungi like candida can prove deadly when immune systems are weakened. People living with HIV/AIDS, organ transfer patients, or cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are vulnerable to this range of fungal infections that would normally be harmless or treatable.
The burden on healthcare systems is equally huge, with hospitalization costs estimated to range from $11,000 to $57,000 for a patient with an invasive fungal infection — and experts are warning that the issue needs more attention.
“Prevention is better than a cure,” says Gow. “One of the things about fungi is that they’re quite difficult to dislodge once they start to grow.
“There’s not a single vaccine against any fungus at the moment.”
Without the option of a vaccine, hospitals have to work hard to avoid exposure: patients can be given drugs to help prevent infection, some hospital wards may not allow flowers because of the risk of fungal spores spreading, and they can also use air filtration barriers to protect patients. But the public also need to be informed to avoid exposure.
“It’s still the case that this information is not really even understood, and not fully appreciated by all members of even the professional community of microbiologists, and certainly not by the general public,” says Gow.
The hope is that these little known infections will gain more recognition for what they really are — global killers.