“The infection was caused by a newly-described (and as-yet unnamed) opportunistic fungus in the genus Emmonsia, and was fatal in three patients,” spokeswoman Nombuso Shabalala said in a statement.
The study was titled “A Dimorphic Fungus Causing Disseminated Infection in South Africa” and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday.
It was not clear where the victims were from or how long they suffered from the infection. The study describes 13 cases of widespread fungal disease among HIV-infected patients.
“The infection was probably acquired after inhalation of fungal spores from the environment,” Shabalala said. The infection was discovered in patients admitted to hospitals in Bloemfontein and Cape Town. All had advanced HIV and were thought to have tuberculosis.
“Some had skin changes, suggesting a widespread fungal infection. Once the diagnosis had been made, most patients experienced dramatic and rapid responses to anti-fungal treatment.”
No person-to-person transmission was discovered and the infection was successfully treated in most cases. “The source of the fungus in the environment, the way it gets into the body and the immune response to it still needs to be researched.”
The study was led by the institute’s Dr Nelesh Govender and Chris Kenyon of Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.