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Fungal infections kill more people each year than malaria, TB or breast cancer: New treatments needed

04 July 2016

Fungal infections affect a quarter of the global population and nearly 1.5 million people die from fungal infections each year- more people than malaria, breast cancer or TB. Despite the threat, we don’t have the treatments we need to protect people who are vulnerable say scientists from Aberdeen presenting research at the “Killer Fungus” exhibit of the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

The exhibit represents research from 12 UK universities who lead the world in research into fungal infections to combat this medical challenge. They say that more investment is needed in the field if we are to be prepared for the increasing risk.

Professor Neil Gow FRS, world expert in fungal research at the University of Aberdeen, is leading the Killer Fungus exhibit. He said:

“Researching fungal infections is held back by the lack of trained medical mycologists.  In the UK we make a major contribution in researching fungal disease but we need to ramp up investment in this field if we are to better protect people who are vulnerable to these sometimes fatal infections.

“Serious life threatening fungal infections are more common than people realise. At the moment we have no fungal vaccines and a relatively limited number of antifungal drugs for treating serious fungal infections. There is a pressing need to develop new treatments.  We also need to get better at diagnosing fungal infections. At the moment we’re not very good at making these diagnoses early enough to save patients with life threatening infections.”

Fungal infections we might be familiar with, like thrush, athlete’s foot and dandruff, will affect 1 in 3 people worldwide during their lifetime. More than 100 million women will suffer recurrent thrush infections each year. Some fungal infections can also cause respiratory problems or severe allergies and fungal infections in the eye also lead to hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness per year globally.

Serious fungal infections can carry higher risks- including death.  People who have suffered a trauma (like an accident which has resulted in an infected wound) and people with weak immune systems (for example those being treated with chemotherapy, by stem cell or bone marrow transplantation or suffering from HIV-AIDS) may be more vulnerable to the risk of serious infection.

  • In the UK alone it is estimated that about 14,000 people may suffer from a serious fungal infection each year.

  • Fungal infections can cause complications for vulnerable patients in UK hospitals. Treatments to protect cancer patients at risk of fungal infection can double the cost of their treatment and can undo the work of skilled oncologists.

The risk from fungal infection is underappreciated. Increasing usage of fungicides on crops to keep fungal plant diseases in check may be driving the selection of drug resistant strains of some fungi. The spores of drug resistant fungi can be blown for miles and inhaled by vulnerable patients.

The risk that they will become resistant to the antibiotics we have is increasing. That could limit the treatments we have which can effectively combat these infections.

The UK’s world leading teams say more research is needed to improve rapid diagnosis of fungal infections and increase the range of treatments available.

At the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition the team will be showcasing UK Wellcome Trust and MRC funded research that is addressing the most urgent clinical problems in this field.  This will highlight new antibodies being developed to diagnose fungal infections, advances in understanding how the immune system recognises fungi, and how studies of how the fungi grow in the human body can identify new ways of killing them.

The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition is a chance for visitors to learn more about fungal infections that they might already be familiar with as well as killer infections across the world. The researchers will be on hand talking about how we diagnose and treat fungal infections and how we can tackle this growing threat.

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