An airborne killer fungus that often spreads rapidly has jumped the border from Canada into Oregon. Known scientifically as Cryptococcus gattii, the fungus is normally found in the tropics.
Shocked experts found the fungus growing in the Pacific Northwest the worst possible way: it killed six people.
So far the fungus has experts stymied—none can determine how it suddenly appeared in Oregon. They worry the fungus will cross the border and invade California.
Worse yet, this new strain of the deadly fungus is more virulent than the one discovered in British Columbia eleven years ago. That strain of C. gattii killed approximately 9% of people exposed to it; the Oregon variety, however, has a frightening 25% death rate among otherwise healthy people. Scientists fear that percentage could climb.
An expert on C. gattii, Edmond Byrnes is a graduate student at the Joseph Heitman Lab at Duke University. He recently noted that "The alarming thing is that it's occurring in this region, it's affecting healthy people, and geographically it's been expanding." He admits there are a lot of unknowns.
What is known is the fungus spews microscopic spores into the air that are carried by the prevailing wind. If inhaled the spores stick in the lungs and begin attacking the soft tissue.
"There are no particular precautions that can be taken to avoid Cryptococcosis; you can, however, be alert for long lasting or severe symptoms and consult a physician for early diagnosis and treatment." warns the British Columbia Center for Disease Control.
The symptoms of exposure are a chronic bad cough, extended periods of shortness of breath, severe headaches and a high fever. According to medical experts familiar with the fungus, the symptoms will appear from three weeks to several months after exposure.
Doctors advise the public to be vigilant—especially if hiking in wooded areas where the fungus may be growing on pines or forest debris.
Besides humans, livestock and pets are also at risk. Veterinarians suggest people keep an eye on their pets for any signs of past exposure. The symptoms in animals match those of humans.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control has so far been reluctant to issue any formal warning. They're taking a "wait and see" attitude and will move if a larger segment of the population becomes affected. And that could happen, the latest statistics show that more people have become exposed to it.
Some researchers hold out that cold weather might kill the fungus, but the Pacific Northwest is about to enter the summer months. Several observers have also noted that the fungus has survived the Canadian winters.
Asked if he thinks the fungus will die out, Byrnes notes cryptically, "It's going to stick around—at least for the foreseeable future."