A new fungus strain has killed 1 in 4 people infected in Oregon. The new strain, called VGIIc of the fungus Cryptococcus gattii, will likely spread into California, according to researchers at Duke University Medical Center.
The fungus, which is found on trees and the surrounding soil, releases deadly spores that can be easily inhaled. While it is not a public health emergency, doctors need to be more aware that the fungus can infect people's lungs and brain.
"The disease was almost exclusively seen in tropical and subtropical areas of the world," says Dr. Julie Harris, a specialist in fungal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The hot spots were most Australia and Papua New Guinea, along with Egypt and parts of South America.
"So it was really surprising in 1999 to find that in this temperate climate of Vancouver Island, people were getting sick with Cryptococcus gattii."
Experts believe the fungus is spreading due to climate change. The fungus is normally found in the tropics. While it originated in the Pacific Coast of British Columbia, it has spread to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
"This novel fungus is worrisome because it appears to be a threat to otherwise healthy people," [Edmond Byrnes III of Duke University Medical Center] said. "Typically, we more often see this fungal disease associated with transplant recipients and HIV-infected patients, but that is not what we are seeing yet."
The strain that come into the U.S. in 2004 mutated to become more fatal. While researchers are worried that the fungus is spreading to other states, it's not a nationwide health threat because the number of infections remain small. One expert said it's like being struck by lightning, so there's no need to hide indoors.
While there is treatment, there is no vaccine available. Anyone who spends a lot of time in contact with soil is at risk. And humans aren't the only target — dogs, cats, sheep, and other animals can get sick too.
Symptoms can appear two months after exposure and can include:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- night sweats
- weight loss
Images: via NPR /Courtesy of Public Library of Science