The information I am about to share is frightening, so I want to emphasize right up front that this problem is currently rare and — thus far — there’s no need to feel frantic or vulnerable, especially if you live in areas that aren’t likely to become affected. On the other hand, this is an important health warning for many…

Lethal Fungus from Trees

A deadly airborne fungus has emerged in the Pacific Northwest. So far, more than 50 people (ages 15 through 95) in the US are known to have contracted the so-called killer fungus, Cryptococcus gattii, and 10 of them — an alarmingly high 20% — have died from it. Experts anticipate more cases as C. gattii fans outward from Washington, Oregon and Northern California… and other strains of unknown virulence already have been detected in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Characterizing it as “relatively rare,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nonetheless acknowledges that any strain of C. gattii is potentially lethal.

C. gattii is an uncommon species of Cryptococcus, a fungus found on eucalyptus trees and in the soil around them. Once seen primarily in tropical and subtropical areas such as South America and Australia, cases of C. gattiisuddenly surfaced on Vancouver Island in Canada in 1999. It has now spread to the US, where it not only has thrived but has mutated into new strains, including a particularly virulent one in Oregon.

Who’s In Danger?

Unlike C. neoformans, the most common form of Cryptococcus, C. gattii affects healthy people as well as those with compromised immune systems, notes Edmond Byrnes III, a doctoral student in molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University who has published numerous scientific articles on this fungus. Exposure occurs when you inhale spores released by C. gattii — for instance, while hiking in the woods — but it’s unclear why some people get sick and others do not. Men — particularly those who are older and have compromised health — appear to be more vulnerable. Animals (including cats and dogs) can be infected, but the fungus does not jump from species to species, nor can it be transmitted from one human to another.

C. gattii becomes deadly when it leads to a condition called “cryptococcomas,” which are masses of fungus that accumulate in the brain and other parts of the body… or when it leads to pneumonia or meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes lining the brain), which has thus far been the most frequent cause of death. Worrisome symptoms that may point to C. gattii infection include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, nausea, fever and chills, severe headache and mental symptoms such as confusion. Making matters difficult, symptoms often don’t arise for a long while, taking from two to 14 months after exposure to develop.

Be Aware — But Don’t Panic

The CDC hasn’t yet issued much in the way of warnings, precautionary instructions or treatment guidelines — partially because so little is yet understood about this infection and also because it remains extremely rare. Even in areas with lots of eucalyptus trees, there’s no official advice to remain indoors or avoid hiking, but if you have been in the Northwest and you develop respiratory symptoms that don’t improve within a few days, visit your doctor. C. gattii is identified with a specific lab test utilizing blood, sputum and cerebrospinal fluid. The test is available from state health departments and the CDC. Byrnes said that most cases can be successfully treated with antifungal drugs, including amphotericin B or flucytosine.

Though there’s no certain protection against C. gattii, it is smart to do all you can to optimize your health and strengthen your resistance to disease in general. At the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, where people have the most reason to be concerned, Marnie Loomis, ND, recommends taking the following proven steps to support your body’s natural healing mechanisms:

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity supports circulation, which is essential for fighting infections of any and all types.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Dr. Loomis suggests seeing your physician to be sure that you don’t have any low-level nutrient deficiencies that may impair your ability to fight disease. For instance, people who have chronically dry skin may be lacking essential fatty acids, important in supporting immunity. Also, many people are deficient in vitamin D.
  • Consider taking probiotics. This is especially important for people with ongoing digestive complaints — see your doctor to determine which type to take.

Meanwhile, I will follow this important story to keep you apprised of new developments.