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Potentially Lethal Fungus Spreads to Pacific Northwest

PULLMAN, Wash. – A fungus that causes potentially fatal disease has been found in Oregon and Washington. Cryptococcus gattii has been causing disease in Canada, especially the Vancouver region, since 1999. 21 cases of fungal infection have been noted in the United States, five of which resulted in death.

Jack D. Rogers, Regents Professor of Planth Pathology. Photo: Brian Clark/WSU. Click image to download high-resolution version.

“C. gattii is a hazard to humans and numerous animal species, especially perhaps those that live near a moist woodland or have hiked or camped in such,” said Jack Rogers, a Washington State University Regents Professor of plant pathologist and an internationally recognized expert on mushrooms and fungi. “The fungus apparently lives on tree bark and other organic material,” he added. “The number of cases [of fungi-caused disease] discovered is increasing, probably because of better diagnosis.”

A paper announcing the discovery of the Pacific Northwest outbreak was published recently in PLoS Pathogens. In paper’s authors write that the disease is a significant “threat to agricultural and domestic animals… and thus the need for cooperation among health officials is critical.” The authors say that the type of C. Gattii found in Oregon is “hypervirulent” and that it’s range in the U.S. may expand further.

Rogers said that “the average physician cannot diagnose fungal disease of the lung. Antibacterial antibiotics are usually prescribed and they are ineffective against fungi.”

The PLoS Pathogens paper’s authors state that “the widespread spectrum of disease illustrates that the organism is likely to be pervasive in the environment, and that physicians and veterinarians should be well informed of symptoms to facilitate early diagnoses, and successful isolate collection and tracking.”

“A timely diagnosis and a course of one or more antifungal antibiotics is essential to preventing serious health consequences resulting from delayed treatment,” said Rogers.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the paper’s lead author, molecular biologist Edmond J. Byrnes III of Duke University Medical Cetner, said that he didn’t consider the fungus a “large threat at this time” but did express concern over its continued geographic spread and the increasing number of observed cases of fungal-caused disease.

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Media Contacts

Jack Rogers, Washington State University Regents Professor of Plant Pathology, 509-335-3732; rogers@wsu.edu