Deadly airborne fungus spreading in Pacific Northwest

Published: Apr. 23, 2010 at 7:34 PM HST|Updated: May. 1, 2010 at 4:12 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A newly discovered deadly airborne fungus is spreading. Cryptococcus gattii has caused several deaths in Oregon. Now it's working its way into California and Washington.

The infection is acquired by inhaling the spores of the fungus. Infected persons will suffer from a chronic cough, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, fever, and weight loss. The infection can cause permanent respiratory damage and can spread to the brain. Cryptococcus can be treated with anti-fungal medications but there is no known means of prevention.

Researchers are especially concerned because unlike similar airborne fungi, it's affecting healthy people. Five of the 21 cases in the United States have resulted in death. People over age 60 and people with respiratory problems seem to be at slightly greater risk. Cases of infection in children are rare. Animals are also susceptible; horses, dogs, cats and even porpoises have been infected.

Another concern is that the fungus in the past was only observed in tropical climates. Now, it is spreading in the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. Some researchers suspect climate change maybe a factor in Cryptococcus' adaptation, and are warning that it might be making its way to northern California.

It is not transmitted from animal-to person or person-to-person. No specific activities or exposures have been linked to increased risk of infection. Even though the fungus is being observed in the Pacific Northwest, no travel advisories have been issued because a high percentage of people living in areas where the fungus is known to exist have not shown symptoms.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control want to build awareness of the infection because delays in diagnosing it can greatly increase the risk of permanent injury and death.

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