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Rare but fatal black fungus on the rise in COVID patients in India

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As the COVID-19 cases continue to rise in India, doctors have begun to notice another alarming trend. Some COVID-19 patients who have recently been released from the hospital came back with symptoms like sinus pain, blurred vision, black and bloody nasal discharge and a dark discolouration around the nose. The source is a rare but fatal infection called the “black fungus”.

“It is ubiquitous and found in soil and air and even in the nose and mucus of healthy people,” Dr Akshay Nair, a Mumbai-based eye surgeon, told BBC News. The mould can enter the body through cuts, burns or other skin abrasions. People can also inhale the fungus and it can take hold in the sinuses or the lungs. Once inside the body, the black fungus can spread through the bloodstream and affect other organs, such as the brain, eyes, ears, spleen and heart.

According to the Centers for Disease Control the culprit, mucormycosis or the “black fungus”, is a potentially deadly fungal infection caused by a group of moulds called mucormycetes. These moulds live and are found throughout the environment and were present in India before the pandemic began.

Mucormycosis thrives in wet environments and can potentially erode facial structures and harm the brain. This seemingly rare condition had doctors and other medical experts believe that the weakened immune system of COVID patients and underlying conditions like diabetes has left them vulnerable to the infection.

“We have heard that in some areas, people who are COVID-infected or recovered suffer from mucormycosis, but there is not a big outbreak of it,” Dr V.K. Paul, head of India’s COVID task force, said at a press conference last week, according to The New York Times. “We are watching and monitoring.”

Some medical experts attribute the rise of the black fungus infection, which has a 50% fatality rate, to the increased use of steroids to treat hospitalized COVID patients. Another factor that doctors are looking at is that overwhelmed hospitals in the second wave of the pandemic has led many families and patients to self-medicate and apply oxygen therapy at home without proper hygiene according to the Times.

“It is a fungus that has a strong relation to diabetes,” he added. “If the person is not diabetic, it is very uncommon that the person would have mucormycosis.” Dr Paul added

Dr K. Srinath Reddy, who leads the Public Health Foundation of India, states that a large percentage of the recently reported black fungus infection cases were recently discharged COVID patients.

“You are using steroids to reduce the hyperimmune response, which is there in Covid,” Dr Reddy told The New York Times “But you are reducing the resistance to other infections.”

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