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Aspergillus and Human Health

Written by Graham Atherton · Thursday 21st February 2013

Many may be familiar with aspergillosis as the infecting agent in acute cases where the patient is severely immunocompromised - but there is more to this fungus' repertoire. There are rare cases where the patient's immune system is overwhelmed by a large inhalation of spores e.g. after gardening, but these are insignificant in terms of total numbers effected.

The following are far more common:-

Aspergillus and other fungi are increasingly identified as the active agent in sinusitis - if you have cases that don't respond to antibiotics this is worth thinking about.

Chronic pulmonary aspergillosis (CPA & aspergilloma) is an infection of immunocompetent people, causing respiratory difficulty, coughing and haemoptysis. The UK NHS has a specialist centre for these patients In Manchester (National Aspergillosis Centre (NAC)). NAC has particular expertise and extensive facilities for the diagnosis of CPA, ABPA, SAFS and use of systemic antifungal drugs.

Allergic infection (Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis - ABPA and chronic sinusitis) is thought to be heavily underdiagnosed and undertreated. ABPA is particularly common in Asthma, Cystic Fibrosis patients and those with bronchiectasis. There is estimated to be 25 000 cases in the UK alone.

Many (50%) of the most severe asthma cases are sensitive to fungi (SAFS) - in particular Aspergillus. These tend to be the most unstable cases that don't respond to antibiotics and several studies have been published that show giving an antifungal helps reduce the use of steroids for these patients.

Last but not least - Tuberculosis is on the rise in the UK and the rest of the world. It is estimated that 2% of cases progress to CPA and should be treated using an antifungal - this is usually not done until considerable time has passed and much damage has been done.

In total it is estimated that many millions of people across the world suffer from aspergillus - ABPA - 5 million, Tb - 400 000 per year and Asthma (SAFS - 1 - 4 million cases in EU & US). Sinusitis cases may number many tens of millions worldwide.

So - the next time you assume aspergillus infections and aspergillosis are rare and confined to those who are profoundly immunocompromised - think again! If you have a patient who has increasingly severe respiratory symptoms, doesn't respond to multiple courses of antibiotics then give aspergillus a thought. Browse around these articles for further information Aspergillus Website Treatment Section.

NB For a broader look at the prevalence of fungal diseases worldwide the new charity Leading International Fungal Education (LIFE) website is worth looking at.