As India battles a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, a large number of cases of a deadly fungal infection called mucormycosis, or “black fungus,” has triggered a new health challenge in the populous South Asian country. 

Mucormycosis, which mainly affects people with weak immune systems and can lead to the loss of eyesight and the surgical removal of the nose and jaw bone to stop it from spreading, is being detected among patients who are recovering or have recovered from COVID-19, which has created a cause of concern among people.

“The situation is alarming,” Dr. Hemant Deshmukh, dean of the government-run King Edward Memorial Hospital in the financial capital Mumbai, told Anadolu Agency.

“Right now, if you ask me the numbers, it is something like earlier there were five cases in 25 years, and now you are seeing 25 in five days…Such is the situation.”

While the government, which is battling the second wave of the pandemic, has not released detailed data about the severity of the infection, Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Sadananda Gowda last week wrote on Twitter that approximately 8,848 cases were reported across the country.

Dr. Randeep Guleria, director of the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital, said that while the number of infections being reported is increasing, it is not a communicable disease.

“It does not spread from one person to another like COVID-19 does,” he said during a briefing, adding most of those getting infected are found to have been either diabetic or taking steroids during COVID-19 treatment.

“This infection is seen very rarely in those who are neither diabetic nor taking steroids,” the top doctor added. “The diabetic patients are at a huge risk.”

The states of Maharashtra and Gujarat have reported nearly half of the cases, according to official data.

According to Dr. Hemant, of the total 237 cases reported in Mumbai city in Maharashtra, 62 patients of mucormycosis had been admitted to the hospital as of Monday.

“Most of them have moderate to severe disease,” he said.

The situation is worrying in other states as well, where doctors say that the large number of cases has further strained the healthcare sector.

“The cases this year are 10 times higher than last year. We are doing three surgeries a week as compared to one such surgery in a year,” Dr. Bulbul Gupta, an ENT specialist at the New Delhi-based Fortis Hospital, told Anadolu Agency, while terming the situation “quite bad.”

Gupta added that there has also been a shortage of the treatment drugs of the deadly infection, which has made treatment more difficult.

High mortality

According to doctors treating the infection, the mortality rate is high, at over 50%.

The government has so far not released data on people dying from the fungal infection or those cases where doctors had to remove the eyes of patients in order to stop its spread to the brain tissue.

“The mortality is high in those patients where the infection has reached the brain. Eyeball removal is required if the infection has reached the eye,” said Prof. Naresh K. Panda, who heads the Department of Otolaryngology at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in the city of Chandigarh. The hospital currently has more than 50 patients admitted with the infection.

He added that some of the patients struggling with the fungal infection died in the hospital after the infection had reached a severe stage and had attacked their brain.

Amid the surge in the number of new infections, a number of states have declared the infection an epidemic. Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir has become the latest state to do so.

Doctors maintain that the rising number of cases has now triggered a new health challenge in the country, where as of Monday morning, the total number of coronavirus infections stood at 26.75 million.

“We have to treat coronavirus patients, and at the same time, we are now treating the recovered COVID-19 [patients] who are coming with this problem, and then preparing for a third wave as well. The situation is definitely challenging,” added Dr. Deshmukh.

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