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In 30 years, I’ve never faced so tough a reporting challenge — and one so unexpected. Who wouldn’t want to talk about a fungus?
Early on, I stumbled onto a compelling example. A woman in Alaska named Sari Bailey woke up one morning with green and yellow gunk coming out of her ear. Her doctor told her it was an ear infection and prescribed antibiotics. They didn’t work. Turns out she had a drug-resistant infection that rooted on her mastoid bone, just behind the ear. It nearly killed her and required multiple surgeries to clear.
Her experience showed the pronounced risk of these tenacious bugs and seemed like a good way to draw readers into a story about a very complex scientific topic. But I needed more details, and I needed context: How common was this? What was the science behind it?
When I went looking for answers, I hit my first curious wall. A hospital in Alaska declined my request to speak with a local doctor who has a lot of experience treating people with drug-resistant infections, including another woman who had been hospitalised for seven months fighting a drug-resistant staph infection.
Getting turned away is just another day at work for a reporter. But what made this incident unusual is that, in my experience, the medical community is generally eager to get the word out about public health issues.
From this germ of an observation grew one of the most curious aspects of our series: The rise in resistant bugs is cloaked in widespread and chronic secrecy.
As our reporting continued, we discovered it was common for hospitals, doctors and public health agencies to clam up when it came to talking about their troubles with resistant bugs, though they widely acknowledged the existence of the problem and even encouraged our efforts. This disconnect was at its most extreme when the issue turned to the subject of the first article in our series, which was published online on Saturday — Candida auris.
C. auris is a drug-resistant fungus that has emerged mysteriously around the world, and it is understood to be a clear and present danger. But Connecticut state officials wouldn’t tell us the name of the hospital where they had had a C. auris patient, let alone connect us with her family. Neither would officials in Texas, where the woman was transferred and died. A spokeswoman for the City of Chicago, where C. auris has become rampant in long-term health care facilities, promised to find a family and then stopped returning my calls without explanation.