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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Airborne Fungus Expected to Spread in U.S.

About 10 People Have Reportedly Died in Northwestern U.S. After Infection With C. gatti
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Tracking the Fungus continued...

While the fungus was typically seen in tropical areas of South America and other tropical and subtropical regions, it surfaced in Vancouver Island, Canada, in 1999, says Heitman, the senior author on a report on the fungus published online this week in the journal PLoS Pathogens.

"It is a microbial pathogen that can cause significant illness and even death, but it is very uncommon," he says.

Infections can be treated with antifungal agents, but no vaccine is available for C. gattii, Heitman says.

The first recorded U.S. case was in Orcas Island, Wash., Heitman says. That was followed by cases in Washington and Oregon.

Hedberg says the 50 reported cases have occurred in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

Heitman's team has discovered a new pathogenic strain of the fungus in the Oregon cases.

Unlike another fungus type, Cryptococcus neoformans, which typically infects those who are HIV-positive or other immunocompromised people, the C. gattii fungus can infect apparently healthy people.

The 50 cases reported to the CDC, Harris says, include people from age 15 to 95.

How the Fungus Spreads

''The fungus is present in the environment," Hedberg says. "It's present in soil or in trees." As trucks transport lumber down the I-5 corridor in the Pacific Northwest, she says, the fungus has likely spread.

The airborne fungus is inhaled. "People have to inhale it to get sick," Hedberg says. "It's not spread from person to person at all."

And, she adds, many are exposed but few actually get sick.

The time from exposure to the fungus to onset of symptoms varies, Heitman says. It could be two to eight months.

Fungus Symptoms

Four symptoms are typical of infection with C. gattii, says Harris of the CDC. They include:

  • Severe headache
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath

Some people infected with the fungus have just one of the symptoms, she tells WebMD, but often they have all four.

See your doctor if you experience the symptoms and think you may have been exposed, she advises.

She encourages doctors to be alert to the symptoms in patients, especially if they live in or have visited the Pacific Northwest.

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