The fungus that came from the cold

Updated: 27 October, 2020 07:38 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Humans are getting cooler. 98.6°F is no longer 'normal'. Meanwhile, the earth is getting warmer. And it's party time for a new, deadly fungus.

The deadly emerging fungus, Candida auris
The deadly emerging fungus, Candida auris

C Y Gopinath

Ramcharan Makhanlal Bhopali (not his real name) does only one thing all day. He stands at the entrance to one of Mumbai's large super-malls pointing a gun-like object at the face of anyone trying to enter the mall. The device makes a small beeping sound and a number appears on its digital LED panel.

Only Bhopali can see this number. He has been told that if it is anything higher than 98.6, the mall's manager should be called at once and the customer should be very politely asked to step aside.

The number 98.6 is, of course, supposed to be the body temperature of the incoming customers, measured in Fahrenheit by bouncing an infra-red beam off their skin. Bhopali might have got a slightly more accurate reading by inserting a mercury thermometer in their mouths but issues of sterilisation and hygiene might have been raised. An even more stable reading would have been obtained if he had taken the temperatures rectally, though this might have raised other issues connected with the mall's business prospects.

It is a historic time for thermometers. More people on the planet have had their temperatures checked in the last nine months than in the entire recorded history of the human species. I can't help noticing, though, that 98.6 is an awfully exact number. Why is our temperature not 98.5 or 98.7 degrees? Who decided that this was normal? And do all people have the same temperature all the time?

Turns out the answers are deeply disturbing.

First, about 98.6. This was the average armpit temperature of about 25,000 Germans, measured in 1951 by one Dr Carl Reinhold Wunderlich. Other scientists found that the human body goes to great lengths to heat up or cool down so that its internal temperature hovers around 98.6°F. At this temperature, we are told, the body is able to carry out its various chemical and other operations, producing essential enzymes and proteins right on schedule. It's all gesundheit.

But that was then; this is today. A recent study by Stanford University found that the average American's body temperature has come down to about 97.5°F. Why? Probably, they say, because we spend so much time now in air-conditioned spaces with precise temperature and humidity control that the body's metabolism doesn't need to work so hard on maintaining its inner temperature.

It seems that just as the climate around us is gradually growing warmer, our own temperatures are decreasing at the rate of about 0.05 degrees every year. Turns out this is great news for a certain ancient fungus.

In 2009, a Japanese man acquired an oozy ear infection and soon died. Tests revealed a pervasive infection of a fungus called Candida auris, never before detected in humans. Over the next several years, Candida auris broke out in hospitals in India, Venezuela, South Africa, Pakistan and the UK, all around the same time. Half the patients died within 90 days. The fungus was resistant to all known anti-fungal drugs.

Then doctors discovered something chilling — the fungus was everywhere. "The walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump," said the hospital's president. "The mattress, the bed rails, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive." It was so invasive that the hospital needed special cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it.

What does all this have to do with your body temperature? Scientists are now saying that Candida auris probably existed even in the age of dinosaurs. When the dinosaurs disappeared, there was room at the top of the food chain, and it could have been filled by reptiles or mammals. But crocodiles and snakes had colder temperatures, and the fungus, which dies easily at around 86°F, was right at home infecting them. Mammals — that's you, dear reader — evolved rapidly. Our temperature of 98.6°F protected us from this deadly fungus.

That protection may soon end. As the world warms up, Candida auris is evolving to survive higher and higher temperatures. Our temperatures are decreasing, meeting the virus halfway. And now Candida auris, a lethal fungus from the same fungus family that gives you athlete's foot and jock itch, is finally ready for human beings.

Goodbye, 98.6. Hello, fungus.

I asked Bhopali if he had ever intercepted anyone whose temperature exceeded 98.6°F. He smiled mysteriously.

"It is private information, sirji," he said. "Sometimes it may be higher, sometimes lower, I am not at liberty to say. But higher or lower, Bhopali lets them all into the mall. If they were healthy enough to come all the way here, then they're good enough to go inside. Who is Bhopali to stop them?"

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 27 October, 2020 06:15 IST

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