When the coronavirus pandemic tore through India this year, its ferocity killed tens of thousands of people. But thousands of those who survived were soon back in hospitals with an ominous fungal infection called mucormycosis.
The complaints ranged from a blurring of vision to droopy eyelids or discharge from the nose. At high risk were diabetic people or those with very weak immune systems. In many cases, the only treatment is the removal of the fungus from the infected area — and that area is often the eye.
“It’s a form of flesh-eating fungus that destroys tissues as it grows,” said Akshay Nair, an oculoplastic surgeon treating mucormycosis patients in Mumbai. Before the pandemic, Nair would see 10 such patients in a year, but since January, he has treated nearly 100 affected patients. “If it involves the sinus, they have to be cleared. If it involves the eye — the eyeball, lids, muscles around the eye have to be removed, leaving behind the bare, bony socket.”
The antifungal drug used for treatment, amphotericin B, has run in short supply in India. The expensive drug has to be administered for at least three to five weeks after the surgery, increasing costs and complicating treatment efforts.
Doctors believe one reason for the spate of cases in India is the rampant use of steroids to treat covid-19 patients. Steroids improve outcomes in serious covid patients but also make them susceptible to this infection by pushing up blood sugar levels.