I would like to share information on a little known, rare infection that all too often is overlooked or misdiagnosed, by the medical profession. It is an infection that shows no mercy to its victims and is deadly in 67 to 90% of the cases, depending upon the severity of the infection. It is called Candida Glabrata (C.Glabrata), and I, like thousands of other victims, have had to learn the harsh realities of what this infection is capable of. I have also learned that it is an infection that our medical profession knows little about and our scientific community knows even less about how to beat it. In 2007, it was listed as the fourth leading cause of bloodstream infection in United States hospitals. The fact that the medical professionals know so little about how one contracts C. Glabrata, who gets it and when to look for it, persuaded me to speak out about this, so others do not suffer as I am.
What is C. Glabrata?
First C. Glabrata is a fungus from the Candidias family, which is the same family of candidias albican (the yeast infection that most people are familiar with), however, there are several other forms in the Candidias family. These other forms are actually known as non-albicans and they are much more serious types of fungi. There are approximately five different species in this category with Glabrata being the most serious form.
What makes Glabrata so serious is the fact that it is only one of a few fungi that do not have hyphae, which are like the tenticles. Without hyphae, it is very difficult to culture, biopsy or see under a microscope. Due to the fact that it cannot be easily diagnosed, it is usually is not discovered in a person until they are very sick and by then it is a race against time to save the individual. The other problem with fungi without hyphae is that they are able to morph and adapt for survival. This means they have the ability to live in both alkaline and acidic environments. This is the part that makes them so deadly, because we only know how to kill fungus by changing the PH balance of the environment to basically make the living conditions unconducive to their life cycle. So, when you have a fungus like C. Glabrata that cannot be easily detected, diagnosed and then treated, you have what is known by the CDC as a deadly fungal infection.
The History of Glabrata
The fortunate thing about Glabrata is that it is a very rare form of fungus that is almost never seen in the general population. It was discovered during the 80’s when the AIDs population came to awareness. Prior to that, it had never been found in humans. Once the HIV population became infected, the fungi were impregnated in hospitals all over the country. Through the 90’s, the only people identified with this infection were the critically ill and immune compromised population, end stage HIV or end stage cancer patients in ICU units. With compromised immune systems these patients had no resistance to the fungus, and unfortunately, the mortality rate was 100%.
By the early 2000’s a new population of people were beginning to show up with C. Glabrata, only now it had moved beyond the immune comprised HIV and end-stage cancer patients. A study in 2010, found that 73% of C. Glabrata cases occurred in patients previously given fluoroquinolones. This new, previously healthy group of people falling ill to Glabrata had all been treated with a broad spectrum fluoroquinolone antibiotic often in conjunction with a steroid. Steroid treatment alone is a risk factor for the C. Glabrata infection. According to my current physicians, when fluoroquinolones are combined with steroids, the risk for contracting C. Glabrata increases significantly.
Research shows that the fluoroquinolones wipe out all gut flora (good and bad). When combined with immunosuppressive steroids, the patient’s ability to fight bad bacteria and fungus is compromised. When all the gut flora are killed, the first flora to grow back are those that are the strongest and most resilient. Much like weeds in your garden, fungus and bad bacteria grow at a faster rate and are stronger mutants than the good bacteria. If the patient was also prescribed steroids, their own immune system can no longer come in to fight off the bad gut flora. This leaves the gut vulnerable to serious infections especially fungal ones like Glabrata. Fluoroquinolones are one of the most potent gut flora destroyers on the market. There is no other class of antibiotics that so totally annihilate gut flora to the level that the fluoroquinolones do. Combining fluoroquinolones with steroids is a recipe for disaster.
In sum, there are only four ways to develop a C. Glabrata infection, end stage HIV, end stage cancer, patients with neutropenia – a genetic or chemo-induced condition that limits white blood cells needed to protect the body from fungal invasion – or by using a broad spectrum antibiotic, like the fluoroquinolones combined with a steroid.
Diagnosing Glabrata – Why So Many Victims of Glabrata Die
Glabrata is very difficult to diagnose, leaving the infection to take hold before it is recognized. The Glabrata fungus does not have hyphae and does not present like all other forms of candidias. This fungus does not produce a white cheesy like curd discharge from the gut / stool, vagina or penis. Instead, it produces a milky white to grayish thin discharge, often seen with bacterial infections. It also produces minor to severe swelling of the tissues and erythema (redness). The infection causes horrific burning (often described as grinding glass into the tissues and then pouring acid on them) with very little itching.
In the early stages, before a doctor thinks to look for C. Glabrata, the infection is frequently misdiagnosed as a bacterial infection. The patient is put on antibiotics; often the same antibiotics that created the susceptibility to the infection to begin with. When these fail again and again, the doctors are often at a loss as to what is going on, especially if the person was a young, healthy individual prior to being given antibiotics with steroids. Since most physicians have been trained to only look for Glabrata with HIV or seriously ill cancer patients, they never think to look for it. It usually takes until the person becomes critically ill with the infection before they realize that it is a fungal infection, at which point the doctor will order specific tests looking for a non albican fungus. In more than half of all cases of Glabrata it is not realized until autopsy. These are not like other fungal tests because they have to be grown in special agar (petry dishes) and then stained with special stains and then looked at under high powered microscopes. The final drawback is that this fungus needs 6 to 8 weeks to grow out, which costs precious time that most patients do not have.
Once Glabrata is diagnosed the next hurdle is how to treat. Currently, there are only a few drugs that have any potential to kill it: Diflucan (fluconazole), Caspofungen and Amphotericin B. Each is problematic. Diflucan has to be used at ten times the normal level for months on end, to kill C. Glabrata. Most people are unable to tolerate this course of treatment and in 99% of cases it fails and in many cases, the fluconazole induces resistance to it and other azole fungicides. Caspofungen or microfungen, are additional options. They can cause serious liver and kidney problems, leading to failure of one or both organs. These drugs work in about 70% of all cases, but again must be used for months on end and many patients are unable to tolerate the treatment.
The last drug known to kill C. Glabrata is Amphotericin B. This drug is only used when the person is on their death bed because it is so toxic that it causes acidosis within minutes of being administered. Over 90% of patients go into multi-organ failure and die within three hours of infusion (discussions with my doctors). This drug too must be used for months on end to kill it. Amphotericin B has a 90% success rate if the patient can survive the drug itself.
In very serious and resistant cases, Flucytosine is combined with the Amphotericin B. Flucytosine is thought to open the cell walls and lets the Amphotericin B in to kill. Flucytosine is an old chemo drug that is quite potent drug. When combined Amphotericin B, the results can be deadly. These are the only drugs known to treat this fungus.
Glabrata Becomes Resistant
As if Glabrata isn’t difficult enough to diagnose and treat, the fungus is very adaptive. If the patient survives the drugs, the fungus can, and often does, become resistant to the drug that it is being treated with, leaving the person with no options to kill it. This means that you get ONE shot with a medicine because it will become resistant the second time around. Glabrata has to be killed totally. If not and it returns, there is no treatment.
But as a fungus, Glabrata does not die on contact with the medicine. Let me explain this in an easier way. Look at it like this a bacteria is like a spider or bug, when you spray it with Raid it stops dead in its tracks and dies right there where you sprayed it. With fungus it is like a weed in your yard, when you spray it with weed killer the first day it begins to droop the next day it turns brown and by the third day it falls to the ground. If you then then pull the weed up and if you did not get the roots too within a week you will have a new weed back again. Fungi work in the same way, which is why it must be treated for months on end. Fungal infections are notoriously hard to treat and some of the most deadly infections to have. This is why Glabrata is fatal in 90% of all cases.
I Have a Glabrata Infection
I have a Glabrata infection and am fighting for my life. How did I contract this deadly fungal infection? I was prescribed Cipro plus a steroid for a misdiagnosed and assumed GI infection. I had a stomach bug, likely the flu, but since I have a diagnosis of IBS and the doctor was unable to see me for four days, she suspected I had a small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). I was prescribed an antibiotic, Cipro, plus steroids. That is, I was prescribed these meds on the assumption that I had a bacterial infection. I did not.
Three days after starting Cipro, I fell ill to Cipro toxicity. My gut flora were wiped out, I just didn’t know it yet and neither did my doctors. A week later, I found out that I never had an infection and didn’t need Cipro to begin with, but it was already too late for me. In the coming months, the GI bleeds began and other GI issues that would be misdiagnosed as Crohn’s Disease and bacterial infections ensued. It was not until last month that my doctors determined that all my problems were due to a deep seeded or disseminated infection with Glabrata.
We tried the Diflucan, which failed miserably. My WBC count and neutraphil count rose and I was now in serious trouble. We put a central line in and started the microfungen. After the first seven days, my counts dropped drastically, but by day nine, I began to step backwards. The fungus was morphing to survive and was becoming resistant to the drug. We are now looking at Amphotericin B. We will give it two more weeks and then make that call but it is not looking good right now. My symptoms have begun to ramp up again. I know the odds are against me with less than a 10% cure rate, I am fighting an uphill battle but I need to win this one for my life!
Why I Am Telling My Story
Patients must understand the dangers of this class of drugs especially when combined with steroids, because many doctors do not! Fluoroquinolones are the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the US and combining them with steroids seems to happen frequently.
Also know that 78% of the time Glabrata starts in the gut. Other times it starts in PIC and central lines. In either case, one initiated, it infiltrates the prostrate for men and the vagina for women. It has been known to seed itself any organ throughout the body. If you are suffering with an infection in any of these areas that does not respond to antibiotics and you are also suffering with GI issues, you need to ask your doctor about checking you for a fungal infection, especially if you have used a fluoroquinolone antibiotic with a steroid prior to the onset.
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Featured image: GMS stained skin punch biopsy demonstrating fungal spores of C. glabrata, eScholarship, University of California.
This story was published originally in December 2013.