Here’s one less thing you have to worry about when traveling

Traveling anywhere, let alone internationally, is a whole lot more complicated these days than it was a year ago. Global tourism has been devastated by COVID-19, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it will take before the travel industry recovers. Even when international flights in and out of the United States are operating normally again, post-coronavirus travelers will almost assuredly be much more aware of their hygiene, surroundings, and the possibility of any infectious threats lurking just out of sight.

On that note, a new study just released by the American Society of Microbiology concerning the multidrug-resistant fungus Candida auris is welcome news in the sense that it allows travelers to cross off at least one of their infectious travel worries. In short, researchers have concluded that healthy international travelers are at low risk of becoming infected with Candida auris while on the go.

First identified just 11 years ago, C. auris is known to cause severe, life-threatening illness in infected individuals. Making matters worse, the fungus is unresponsive to several antifungal drugs. Due to its drug-resistant nature, mortality rates among C. auris patients are high.

Most often found in hospitals, nursing homes, and doctor offices, C. auris is also very adept at staying infectious and active while resting on surfaces (doorknobs, chairs, etc). While most outbreaks have occurred in healthcare settings, the fungus has been detected all over the world in recent years, which at least somewhat suggests it’s capable of infecting travelers.

So, the study’s authors set out to see just how often international travelers contract C. auris. To that end, a group of 94 healthy American international travelers consented to a “culture-based screening method.” By the end of their travels, not a single study participant showed any signs of C. auris.

“This suggests that healthy travelers are not at high risk for C. auris acquisition during international travel and that they are likely not a significant reservoir for global transmission,” says Margaret Becker, a research technician from Massachusetts General Hospital in the department of pathology, in a release

All of the travelers who took part in the study had been enrolled in Mass General’s travel clinic program, and three had visited a medical facility during their trip. 

“The success of implementing the screening protocol opens up the possibility of developing a detection system that could be used for high-risk populations in the future, such as individuals that receive medical care overseas,” Becker explains.

The study was fairly small in its scope, so a similar project in the future involving larger numbers of travelers is probably a good idea to confirm these findings. 

The study’s authors also acknowledged that none of the participants visiting a hospital during their trip probably lowered their overall chances of contracting C. auris. While that is true, at the same time, how many international travelers find themselves in a foreign country’s hospital? It certainly does happen, but it’s not the norm. So, in that sense, these findings are quite relevant for the average international tourist.

So, if C. auris isn’t hitching a ride around the globe on travelers’ backs, how has it spread across continents in a relatively short period? According to the CDC, the genomes of various C. auris samples taken from different locations show some differences. This indicates the fungus “emerged independently” in numerous locations within the same time frame, and may not have traveled far distances after all.

In conclusion, C. auris is definitely a threat and something everyone should keep in mind when visiting a hospital, but it doesn’t appear to be a major travel concern. Considering how we’ll all still be worrying about COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, it’s nice to read about at least one infectious illness we won’t have to stress about while waiting in line at the airport.

This research is being presented at ASM Microbe Online, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.