Deadly airborne fungus reaches Pacific Northwest

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by WAYNE HAVRELLY / KGW

NWCN.com

Posted on April 23, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Updated Friday, Apr 23 at 7:32 PM

Health care professionals in Oregon and Washington are being asked to watch out for a deadly new strain of airborne fungus. This new type of fungus is infecting otherwise healthy people. Typically, fungal diseases strike people with weak immune systems, but this strain is different.

Researchers at Duke University are analyzing 21 recent cases of the disease and they all broke out right here in the Northwest. The fungus is called Cryptococcus gattii and these recent cases are a new more deadly strain. Out of the 21 cases, 6 of the patients died.

"It can simulate some other common type of pneumonia's," said Providence Portland MD John Heffner. "Instead of anti-biotics you need to treat this with anti-fungal therapy that we usually never use for pneumonia."

The fungus can be treated, but not prevented. Right now there is no vaccine. Symptoms of the fungal disease include a chronic cough, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, fever and weight loss.

Scientists say the disease has also struck dozens of dogs and cats in Oregon and Washington. Cryptococcus gattii has also been spotted in bottle nose dolphins off the coast of California.

"The animals are at risk for getting it, but it comes somewhere from the environment and we haven't been able to chase down where it comes from," said Dr. Heffner.

It doesn't appear to be very infectious from animals to humans. Public health officials are on watch. Researchers say overall it's still a low threat, however as the number of cases increase, so will the interest.

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