I started coughing around the end of October. I thought it was pneumonia, says Amanda Lennox, a resident of the community.
On November 21, I was called to tell me that maybe it was blastomycosis, and that I had to go urgently to the Hearst hospital.
Mrs. Lennox’s cough was so bad she couldn’t speak. Her young nephew, also suffering from blastomycosis, could no longer walk.
Concerned about the critical condition of patients arriving from Constance Lake, medical, Native, provincial and federal teams organized helicopter evacuations, as area hospitals did not have the resources to treat these patients.
The tiny fungi that cause blastomycosis are found naturally in the environment, and can infect humans and animals when contaminated soil is disturbed.
Specialists therefore went there to find the source of the outbreak and samples from various locations were sent to Toronto for analysis by Sporometrics, one of the only laboratories specializing in the analysis of pathogenic fungi in the country.
Changing climate, emerging threat
This outbreak does not surprise me at allsays the founder of the laboratory, Dr. James Scott.
Over the past twenty years, most of the new emerging pathogens have been of fungal origin.
Unlike viral agents that can cause global pandemics, fungal outbreaks tend to be limited to specific geographic locations.
However, it would be a mistake to minimize the threat posed by pathogenic fungi, according to several specialists.
First, as Dr. Scott notes, they are not as rare as one might think: athlete’s foot, yeast infections, and dermatomycosis are all fungal in origin.
” Those who suffer from this kind of infection do not necessarily die from it, but they are sick. And we invest a lot of resources in finding and developing treatments. “
Antifungal drugs are as big a share of the pharmaceutical market as drugs to treat colds, illustrates Mr. Scott, who is also a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
According to this specialist, climate change will create environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of new fungal pathogens.
Now is not the time to ignore these pathogens, on the contrary, more resources must be allocated to research in the field.
Same story with the department of microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Montreal. Professor Adnane Sellam predicts that
in the era of immunosuppression and climate change, fungal diseases will become more prevalent.
The researcher expects there to be more and more cases like the Constance Lake outbreak, and he believes the scientific and medical communities will be ill-prepared to deal with it.
We have to think about the future, he says, deploring the lack of resources allocated to research in the field.
Opportunistic and disruptive fungi
Fungal diseases particularly affect vulnerable populations, such as immunosuppressed individuals, those with HIV or cancer, and the elderly.
In Ontario, blastomycosis outbreaks have often occurred in Aboriginal communities.
First, because these communities are more in contact with the soil of the environment, through fishing, hunting, or outdoor camping activities.
But these communities are typically underservedadds Rebecca Shapiro, a fungal molecule researcher at CIFAR, a global research organization based in Canada.
” It’s a perfect storm: an emerging problem, and a problem that particularly affects traditionally neglected communities. “
Pathogenic fungi are also devastating for plants and some animal species.
It was a fungal disease that caused the United States to ban potatoes from Prince Edward Island., recalls Dr Scott.
Pathogenic fungi particularly affect amphibian and bat populations.
Bats eat mosquitoes; if their populations are in decline, it will create favorable conditions for the spread of diseases like Nile viruses, and Zika, he adds.
Everything is connected.
How to cure a fungal disease?
In this area, there are gaps from diagnosis to treatment, say these specialists. However, the lack of care is particularly problematic.
Fungi cells are remarkably similar to those of humans, explains Adnane Sellam.
Anything that can be found as a molecule to act against fungi, it can act against humans.
” It’s a big challenge for researchers, to find a molecule that could compromise the fungus and not humans. “
All antifungal drugs, without exception, have a window of patient toxicity, explains the professor.
It was recently discovered that certain antifungal drugs can cause miscarriages in pregnant women, he illustrates.
Not only are there few treatment options, but this problem is compounded by the fact that pathogenic fungi are highly resistant.
It is very, very difficult to cure fungal diseases, adds Dr Shapiro.
And these are diseases that have a very high death rate.
Resistance to antifungal treatments is a phenomenon observed in the plant world as well.
The crops are sprayed with treatments, then the pathogenic fungi are exposed to known antifungal agents, explains the one who founded an academic laboratory specializing in fungal diseases
” By the time they are in contact with humans, these fungi have developed resistance and our treatments lose their effectiveness. “
A crying lack of funding
Pharmaceutical companies have little financial incentive to subsidize research in this area, since research is expensive and the problem is not as prevalent and widespread as other diseases.
It is therefore up to the federal government to fund research on pathogenic fungi.
Federal funding for scientific research works in a bit of a mystery way, laments Dr. Scott.
We have to build a kind of history that will be compatible with the expectations of scientific agencies: research that will make it possible to innovate, create new products, generate employment opportunities, he continues.
” In the case of pathogenic fungi, one needs basic information. There is no appetite at the federal level for basic science. “
For 15 years I have been writing grant applications to do asthma research because I know I will get funding for it, relates the specialist.
I know I’m not going to get funding for fungal pathogen research, although I’m interested, and believe it’s more important.
For its part, the Scientific Research Institute of Canada (CIHR) says it is interested in pathogenic fungi.
From 2000 to 2020, around $ 30 million would have been invested in the field, according to spokesperson David Coulombe.
In an email shared with TurnedNews.com, Mr. Coulombe cites Dr. Shapiro’s laboratory as an example.
Shapiro, for her part, believes that the fact that her fungal pathogen research was included in a larger microbial resistance grant application played a role in her securing funding.
It is rather rare to find funding dedicated solely to pathogenic fungi, she says.
However, the situation could be called upon to change, as Canada recently identified research on pathogenic fungi as a priority area and a threat to the whole world.