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'Black fungus' strikes fear in India as Covid deaths pass 300,000

Mucormycosis has appeared in both current and recovering patients of coronavirus, causing blurred vision, chest pain and breathing difficulties.
Image: A patient infected with black fungus is taken on a wheel chair for treatment at the Mucormycosis ward of a government hospital in Hyderabad, India
A patient infected with "black fungus" is taken on a wheelchair for treatment in Hyderabad on Sunday.Mahesh Kumar A / AP

India became only the third country to record 300,000 Covid-19 deaths on Monday amid growing fears about a potentially fatal fungal infection striking some of those who have battled the virus.

Over 8,800 total cases of the so-called black fungus, known as mucormycosis, have been recorded across India, the country's minister of chemicals and fertilizers, Sadananda Gowda, said in a tweet Saturday.

Although Gowda did not share the official number of deaths caused by mucormycosis, The Associated Press reported that local media had found that more than 250 people have died as a result of the disease.

Experts told the AP that they had seen only a handful of cases per year of mucormycosis in India prior to the country's second wave. This has further stoked fears that the fungal infection has dire effects on Covid-19 patients.

India recorded over 4,454 Covid-19 deaths Monday, becoming only the third country to reach over 300,000 total deaths, after the United States and Brazil, according to official data. It also reported 222,315 new cases Monday, adding to a total of over 26 million cases.

Mucormycosis has appeared in both current and recovering patients of coronavirus, causing blurred vision, chest pain and breathing difficulties.

The disease spreads through the respiratory tract and is especially harmful to those with weakened immune systems and underlying conditions, and as doctors in India are finding, in coronavirus patients who had been treated with large quantities of steroids.

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SK Pandey, a medical officer from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, told the AP that this was especially apparent in rural areas and smaller cities, where unqualified doctors were prescribing steroids improperly.

“This has led to increase in black fungus cases in smaller cities where the patient has not even been hospitalized,” he said.

Mucormycosis can be life threatening if it reaches the brain, so doctors are having to surgically remove the eyes of patients to stop the infection from spreading too far, according to the AP.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an online video conference Friday to health care workers in the Indian city of Varanasi that the disease was a new challenge.

An attendant sits next to a patient who recovered from the Covid-19 coronavirus and is now infected with the deadly fungal infection in Jabalpur on Friday.Uma Shankar Mishra / AFP - Getty Images

“We should focus on precautions against black fungus and step up efforts to deal with the challenge”, he added.

For weeks now, India’s health care system and crematoriums have been overwhelmed by the country’s rampant second wave, facing shortages in oxygen supply, medication and ICU beds.

However, there have been some signs of infections slowing down, with less than 300,000 daily cases in a week being recorded, compared to daily counts reaching over 400,000 earlier this month.

Experts still fear that the number is a vast undercount, and that the real figures may be between five to 10 times higher in the country with a population of over 1.3 billion.