Fungal pathogens: the line between myth and reality in the HBO show, The Last of Us

1 Fungal Pathogens

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic has been nearing its end, discussions on how we can better prepare ourselves to handle future global emergencies of the same scale have been held.  The war between microorganisms and humans has been ongoing for centuries, such as the Black Death in 1346, HIV/AIDS in 1981, swine flu in 2009, and the recurring cholera pandemic. More or less, these health crises were primarily caused by bacteria and viruses. Due to the prevalence of these infections and developing technological advancements, humans always emerged victorious in this war. Vaccines and antibiotic medications have gone a long way since they were first discovered. Now, we have different types of treatment plans available to target specific infections and diseases. But what if there was another threat to our existence that none of us have dealt with before? 

In the opening scene of the newly released HBO series The Last of Us, an epidemiologist named Dr. Neuman discussed his concerns about a pandemic caused by a fungal pathogen. He states that, “there are some fungi who seek not to kill, but to control.” In the show, the main catalyst is a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps that can infiltrate into the human brain, giving people zombie-like symptoms. Naturally, this killer fungus can only infect insects, like ants or spiders, by invading their bodies and minds. It feasts on its body from within until it reaches its demise, where the fungus will grow and disperse its spores to infect its next victim. As Dr. Neuman said, “viruses can make us ill, but fungi can alter our very minds.” 

Plant pathogenic fungus are usually toxic but not infectious to humans. But in March 2023, the world’s first case of a plant fungal infection contracted by a human was reported. The 61-year old Indian mycologist was infected by Chondrostereum purpureum, which is the same fungus that causes Silverleaf disease in plants. He was brought to a hospital in Kolkata where he was successfully treated with antifungal medication and is recovering. Many public health officials were alerted of this phenomenon as non-human fungal infections start to cause illnesses in people.

Generally, fungi cannot survive in temperatures over 94 Fahrenheit. Since the average body temperature of a healthy person is 98.6 Fahrenheit, it is highly unlikely that the post-apocalyptic world seen in The Last of Us will happen in the near future. Though, we cannot disregard the rising concern of fungal pathogens as climate change is taking place. As global temperatures rise, fungi can evolve and become thermotolerant, increasing the chances of these organisms to cause diseases in humans.

WHO published a fungal priority pathogens list (WHO FPPL) to increase global effort in prioritizing research and development concerning ‘fungal infections’ and ‘antifungal resistance.’ Currently, there are no vaccines targeted for these types of pathogens and there is a limited amount of anti-fungal treatments compared to anti-bacterial and viral medications. According to Nnadi & Carter (2021), fungi have a unique ability of causing complete host extinction due to their nature: large production of infectious spores and the non-essential host-to-host contact to spread diseases. 

If there was a lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it would be to invest in research and establish policies that can prevent and/or deal with what is to come soon before it becomes a real threat. 

Roselle Torres


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