UNLV researchers find deadly fungus in wastewater across Las Vegas Valley

Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 11:56 PM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Scientists are calling it an emerging global public health threat and Nevada has seen more cases than any other state. Candida auris is a fungal infection that primarily impacts places like hospitals and nursing homes. Now UNLV researchers are tracking it. They are looking at wastewater samples much like they have for Covid-19 and even monkeypox. The researchers report they have found positive samples of the deadly fungus at all seven sewer sheds in the Vegas Valley.

“Once outbreaks occur, then we start to pay attention to what is going on locally. What can we do to protect our population,” explained Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an Assistant Professor at the UNLV School of Public Health. In Southern Nevada, the fungus flare-up erupted in August 2021 and has now impacted more than 30 healthcare facilities, one of the largest outbreaks of healthcare-associated Candida auris in the country.

From 24 cases in 2021 to nearly 400 last year, the caseload keeps rising.

“It is not something you see in the general community; it is something we are concerned about when people already have a lot of other health problems going on,” Labus clarified. Candida auris can impair the blood, brain, and heart of immunocompromised individuals and other people in long-term healthcare settings. It is difficult to treat and more than 1 in 3 infected die.

“The reason it is so deadly is the cases that occur, are people who are already hospitalized with serious health problems,” Labus contended.

With growing case counts in Southern Nevada, UNLV researchers wanted to learn more. They took untreated sewage samples or wastewater already being monitored for COVID and started testing for Candida auris.

“It was a 10-week study over the summer looking at all of our seven sewer sheds here in the Las Vegas Valley,” shared Casey Barber, a PhD student at UNLV’s School of Public Health and Graduate Intern with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. There was at least one positive sample found at each facility and the fungus was detected in nearly 80% of all untreated sewage samples.

“We don’t know if there are other potential sources of shedding from the community but the healthcare facilities that have had those outbreaks are located within some of those different sewer sheds,” Barber revealed.

The researchers want to stress they found there is no risk to the drinking water. The fungus is filtered out at the water treatment plant.

The UNLV team added their findings have already prompted expanded Candida auris screenings in local healthcare facilities in an effort to prevent larger outbreaks. They also hope to be an example and show other communities how they can look to their wastewater for answers about infection levels.

Learn more on UNLV’s study here.