Cryptococcus gattii: Killer Canadian fungus threatening U.S.

Fungus on a tree with lichen in a rain forest

Cryptococcus gattii infection is spreading from Canada into the Pacific Northwest as airborne spores infect a growing number of people and animals. Flickr photo.

Cryptococcus gattii infection is the latest exotic microscopic biological threat being sensationalized in the media. Cryptococcus gattii is a common fungus that biologists have known about for a long time. But a new highly virulent strain has emerged in the Pacific Northwest. Cryptococcus Gattii used to only affect people with weakened immune systems. Until now. Whether Cryptococcus gattii infection has the potential to become either a horrendous pandemic or a mild media distraction depends on who’s talking.

Cryptococcus gattii symptoms

Cryptococcus gattii is an airborne pathogen that kicks in a few months after you breathe it in. Cryptococcus gattii symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, fever and a cough that won’t go away by next pay day. In a report published online by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cryptococcus gattii symptoms emerged as a disease in 2003 on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control reported 218 cases in humans during 1999–2007. During this period, 19 deaths from Cryptococcus gattii infection were documented: a fatality rate of 8.7 percent.

The Cryptococcus gattii infection

Most Cryptococcus gattii infection cases occur on Vancouver Island, according to the CDC report. But the number of cases has steadily increased to mainland British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon. Some healthy people have gotten Cryptococcus gattii symptoms, and cases of Cryptococcus gattii infection have been documented in animals. How Cryptococcus gattii infection and the symptoms it causes are spreading isn’t known, but theories include vehicle wheel wells, footwear, construction and forestry activity (leading to aerial dispersal), and water. A few domestic and international travelers to Vancouver Island have come down with cryptococcus infections.

The Cryptococcus gattii invasion

Cryptococcus gattii infection is a tempting subject for members of the media members who can’t resist the potential to earn extra cash by seeding widespread panic. John Atchison at helium.com, describes the Cryptococcus gattii story as “word from the Northwest United States of another potential deadly killer…” Hutchinson, who doesn’t appear to have any biological or medical credentials, calls the fact that the fungus is airborne “scary,” because you can’t protect yourself from infection by merely washing your hands. Atchison wonders if Cryptococcus gattii could “perhaps contaminate certain types of meats and such.”

Cryptococcus gattii treatment

Should everyone be seeking out Cryptococcus gattii treatment? Courtney Hutchinson at ABC News reports that scientists at Duke Medical University Center have called for awareness and vigilance. But the doctors who Hutchinson talked to don’t think a big deal should be made out of Cryptococcus gattii infections. Healthy people with Cryptococcus gattii symptoms won’t need a personal loan to be cured. Cryptococcus gattii treatment includes a regimen of antifungal agents such as fluconazole. Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., regards it as “a curiosity more than a threat.” He told Hutchinson that one would be as likely to be hit by lightning as to be afflicted by this strain of Cryptococcus gattii.

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