HBO’s The Last of Us – Can the Parasitic Fungus Really Turn Us All into Zombies in the Real World?

HBO’s The Last of Us – Can the Parasitic Fungus Really Turn Us All into Zombies in the Real World?

If you’ve been tuning in for HBO’s The Last of Us for the last couple of weeks or if you’ve been a fan of the original video game by Naughty Dog since 2013 when it was first launched, you know all about the fact that the zombie-like infection that brings about the end of the world as we know it is caused by a fungus known as Cordyceps.

But obviously, such a dangerous parasitic fungus is nothing but a work of fiction right?

Well, not exactly! Fungi are quite different from animals and even plants and can range from delicious edible mushrooms to – yes – nightmare-inducting, brain-controlling parasites.

Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps fungi are very much real and can only take complete control of insects, especially ants – for now.

If you consider The Last of Us show’s premise, these fungi species could one day evolve to infect humans.

But how likely is this to happen in real life?

According to leading fungal expert at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, Dr. Neil Stone, “I think that we underestimate fungal infections at our own peril. We have already done that for far too long and we’re completely unprepared for dealing with a fungal pandemic.”

Even scarier, last year at the end of October, WHO (the World Health Organization) issued its very first official list of life-threatening fungi.

However, it turns out that Cordyceps is not even on the list!

Microbiologist at Utrecht University, Dr. Charissa de Bekker, who has studied Cordyceps, stresses that this ant-zombifying fungus is not likely to ever do the same to people due to our internal temperature being way too high for them to survive.

In addition to that, most parasitic Cordyceps species have specifically evolved over millions of years to infect one particular insect species and only one, most of them not being able to even jump from one insect type to another, let alone to humans.

On the other hand, Dr. Stone warns that “People think of it as something trivial, or unimportant,” when that is far from the truth.

And sure enough, while only a few of the millions of different fungi species can cause disease in humans, some are far worse than just an infected toenail or Athlete’s foot.

In reality, fungi manage to kill about 1.7 million people every year, which is around three times more than malaria does!

On that list, and on WHO’s list as well, is a deadly superbug known as Candida auris, as well as a fungus – Mucormycetes – that can eat the flesh so quickly it can lead to serious facial injuries.

Candida auris, if it manages to get into the body, is able to invade one’s nervous system, internal organs and blood.

According to WHO, up to 50 percent of people diagnosed with an invasive infection of Candida auris die.

Dr. Stone compares this scary parasite to “a monster which has appeared in the last fifteen years or so, but it is now being found all over the world.”

Even more concerning is that Candida auris naturally evades anti-fungal drugs and some of its strains are actually immune to all the medicine we currently have available, reason for which it is considered to be a superbug.

As for how it spreads, it mainly happens through hospitals surfaces that have been contaminated.

It is really difficult to clean off and stubbornly sticks to blood pressure cuffs and intravenous lines.

More often than not, the only solution to such an infection is closing off entire hospital wards in order to contain it.

As per Dr. Stone, this is the most concerning fungi out there and while generally ignored, if it ever takes off, it may lead to the “shut down [of] entire healthcare systems.”

Cryptococcus neoformans can also get into our nervous system and cause meningitis.

The initial symptoms are often overlooked as they are nausea and headaches.

However, these common signs can then be followed by violent jerking and even terrifying full blown seizures.

One such victim of Cryptococcus was rushed to the hospital and scans discovered swelling in her brain.

She remained in a coma and on a ventilator for 12 days, but fortunately, she responded to medication and was able to recover.

The patient remembers having delusions, including of being a mother of triplets and that her husband had gambled all of their money away.

“I just remember screaming. So the first thing I said to him was that it was over,” which was really unfortunate, especially since she contracted the fungi on their honeymoon.

Mucormycetes, also known as black fungus, is the cause of a flesh-eating illness by the name of mucormycosis.

Clinical scientist at HSL, Dr. Rebecca Gorton, explains that “When you have a piece of fruit and the next day it has turned to mush, that is because it has had a mucor fungus [Mucormycetes] inside of it.”

She goes on to say that while it’s quite rare in humans, it can be “really serious.”

It targets mainly people with weakened immune systems and attacks the eyes, face and brain and can leave patients completely disfigured or even kill them.

Dr. Gorton points out that such an infection grows just as quickly in humans as it does in fruit.

Over 4,000 people died of black fungus in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is believed that the steroids taken to combat COVID, weakened their immune systems and helped the fungus thrive.

All in all, it’s safe to say that while fungus doesn’t seem likely to ever zombify humans like in The Last of Us, it is definitely not a threat to be taken lightly.

Katherine Baldwin

Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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