India New Infectious Disease ‘Black Fungus’?

A recent advisory by the Indian Council of Medical Research and India’s Health Ministry dated May 9, calls for more awareness, screening, and better management of mucormycosis, a rare, and deadly fungal infection called the “black fungus”.

Screenshot of a patient via Times of India’s Facebook page.

Covid-19 has surged in India to 23 million cases and claimed 250,000 lives, making it 1 out of 5 Covid-19 cases in the world. The “black fungus” is the new enemy of Covid-19 patient, although it is not a new disease in India. “Mucormycosis is an opportunistic infection,” says India’s Doctor Aparna Mukherjee. It is not transmittable from one person to the next. Before Covid, only people with their immune system weakened such as after an operation or prolonged hospital stay were likely to be infected the black fungus, but today Covid-19 weakens the immune system making more people vulnerable to the disease. As of May 22, India reported nearly 9,000 cases, more than half of the total cases are concentrated in states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. In the state of Ahmedabad there are now 100 cases compared to the normal 3 cases per year.

Why the Black Fungus infects Covid-19 patients?

In India, concentrated oxygen is used to treat Covid-19 patients to help them breathe. This oxygen concentrator device comes with a humidifier system which helps to keep the air moist, so the airways don’t become too dry, and fungal spores live in that kind of environment. “If the humidifiers are not properly cleaned or if they don’t work, then the chances of contracting mucormycosis are higher” say Dr. Ronak Shukla, an ear, nose and throat doctor who take cares of Covid-19 patients.

Patient receiving oxygen and steroid medication (another cause of weakened immune system) as necessary treatment for Covid 19 and then contracted mucormycosis experienced intense headache, pain in the sinus area and eye(s), blurred vision and swollen cheek. The nasal sinuses turns black. The disease “attacks blood vessels and live tissues, as it kills them, it turned them all black— that’s where the disease gets the name ‘black fungus’ said Dr. Shukla in the NPR report. In three days time, the infection spreads to the eyes or the jawbone, and then to the brain where the patient will survive only 50% of the time. The treatment to stop the progression to the brain is to remove the infected eye or jawbone by surgeries.

Despite being an invasive disease, it can be treated, says India doctor Shukla. People in India are infected by inhaling the fungal spores found in the natural environment and soil in India. “For most people with a healthy immune system, exposure to the fungus really won’t matter. They won’t get sick” he says.