Mucormycosis, a rare fungal disease, usually infects people whose immune system has been compromised.
India has reported 259,551 new coronavirus infections over the last 24 hours, while deaths have risen by 4,209 with rising cases of mucormycosis, a fungal disease also known as “black fungus”, further complicating treatment.
The South Asian nation’s infection tally stands at 26.03 million, with a death toll of 291,331, health ministry data showed on Friday.
“Black fungus” presents a new challenge for COVID-19 patients on steroid therapy and those with pre-existing diabetes.
It causes blackening or discolouration over the nose, blurred or double vision, chest pain, breathing difficulties and coughing of blood.
Doctors believe the use of steroids to treat severe COVID-19 could be causing the condition. Coronavirus patients with diabetes and a weakened immune system are particularly prone to attack.
Many of the drugs used to fight the coronavirus suppress the body’s immune system that would normally ward off a fungal infection.
India’s health ministry on Thursday asked state governments to declare it as a “notifiable disease” under the Epidemics Act, meaning they have to identify and track every case.
The government alert said teams of reconstruction and general surgeons as well as ear, nose and throat specialists had to be readied to treat the growing number of sufferers.
States across India have also ordered emergency measures to counter a surge in the rare infection among coronavirus sufferers.
Gujarat and Telangana states on Thursday became the latest to declare black fungus epidemics, a day after Rajasthan.
Maharashtra state has reported more than 2,000 cases. Gujarat, home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has about 1,200, officials said.
Ahmedabad civil hospital, one of Gujarat’s biggest, was treating 371 cases, according to a spokesman. Health officials said there were about 400 cases in the government hospital in the city of Rajkot.
New Delhi set up special wards at three hospitals to cope with increased black fungus numbers.
There are more than 200 black fungus patients in New Delhi hospitals, with dozens on waiting lists for beds, according to media reports.
The IT hub of Bangalore opened special wards on Wednesday which filled within hours, doctors said.
India normally deals with less than 20 “black fungus” cases a year, but the infection has become a new threat from the coronavirus wave that has killed 120,000 people in the past six weeks.
While authorities have not said how many people have died from the fungus, the infection kills more than 50 percent of sufferers within days. In some cases, eyes and upper jaws are removed by surgeons to save lives.
Anti-fungal drugs are the latest shortage to hit India’s stretched health system and social media has been flooded with requests from relatives of mucormycosis sufferers pleading for help to find medicine.
Black fungus is caused by organisms called mucormycetes, which can enter the body through breathing or skin injuries.
These are naturally present in soil and decaying organic matter, but once inside humans, they can infect air pockets behind the forehead, nose, cheekbones and between the eyes and teeth.
Some doctors say there has been panic use of steroids to combat COVID-19 which has helped the spread of black fungus.
“Indiscriminate use of steroids to treat COVID-19 patients should be avoided,” Maharashtra’s Health Minister Rajesh Tope said on Wednesday.
Other doctors say the unhygienic conditions in some hospitals when putting coronavirus patients on oxygen cylinders has allowed black fungus to take hold.