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UNLV student leads wastewater surveillance study for deadly fungus


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A UNLV doctoral student leads one of the first wastewater surveillance studies in the country focused on detecting Candida Auris, a potentially deadly, drug-resistant fungus that is not only in Southern Nevada but is an emerging global threat.

Casey Barber came to the Southern Nevada Water Authority in June 2022 as a graduate intern and immediately started research to detect genetic material of C. auris in the wastewater.

"So, this was a 10-week sampling campaign, where we took samples from all seven of the local sewer sheds in Southern Nevada, and we did detect genetic material of C. auris in at least one sample from all seven sewer sheds," Barber said. "We recognized that it is potentially here in our community, and so we wanted to see if it could be detected in community wastewater, which it has not been before."

Nevada is one of six states with a high C. auris infection and logged the most U.S. cases in 2022, at nearly 400, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barber and the team used untreated sewage samples that were being monitored for COVID-19 and started testing for C. auris. Results from the study revealed sewer sheds serving healthcare facilities involved with the outbreak had high detection frequencies for the fungus.

"It showed that it was more widespread than we knew about here in Southern Nevada," Daniel Gerrity, a Southern Nevada Water Authority Principal Research Microbiologist, said. "So, we knew we had a large outbreak, but we didn't know geographically how widespread it was. It showed them (public health providers) that they need to branch out to these other facilities and do some testing and do some screening upon entry of people to make sure that it's not spreading beyond what they know about."

The results also verified that wastewater surveillance can help monitor the spread of C. auris and could serve as an early warning system for public health action. That information is now being shared with other states that have not had a widespread outbreak, to try and implement wastewater surveillance as way to detect it faster.

"Utah has been our closest collaborator so far. We're working really closely with Arizona now trying to get methods up in Hawaii and Delaware, and so it's nationwide at this point."

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Researchers also noted the fungus was not detected in drinking water. The scientists tested samples from the Las Vegas watershed and Lake Mead during the study.

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