An airborne fungus, Cryptococcus gattii, first appeared on Vancouver Island in the province of British Columbia, Canada, in 1999 and spread to Washington in 2006 and from there to Oregon and Northern California. The fungus grows on or around trees. If not diagnosed and treated, it can cause pneumonia and meningitis. At least 15 people are known to have died of the disease in the Pacific Northwest.
Appearance in Washington State
Nicola Marsden-Haug, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health says that 12 of the 50 known cases, including three deaths, have been in Washington State. The first appearance in Washington was on Orcas Island in 2006. Fifty cases of the disease have been diagnosed in cats, dogs, elk and ferrets.
Spread of the Disease
Dr. Joseph Heitman, of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, says the fungus migrated to the Northwest from its traditional tropical breeding ground. Heitman's colleague, Edmund Byrnes, the lead author of an article about the disease in the “Journal of Infectious Diseases,” speculates that the disease spread from British Columbia down the I-5 corridor on logging trucks and the treads of car tires as well as on the bottoms of people's shoes.
Victims of the fungus typically have severe headaches, chills and fever, followed by shortness of breath. Some victims only experience one or two of the symptoms
Physicians can treat infections with anti-fungal agents, but there are no vaccines for the uncommon pathogen. A similar fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans, typically infects people who are HIV-positive or whose immune systems are otherwise compromise. C. gattii can infect otherwise healthy people
Julie Harris, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, says the overall risk for people in Washington State and the Pacific Northwest is low. People should not avoid exercising and going outdoors.