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Potentially Lethal Airborne Fungus May Spread to California

Unlike typical strains, new pathogen can attack healthy people, researchers say

THURSDAY, April 22 (HealthDay News) -- A strain of potentially lethal airborne fungus recently discovered in Oregon may soon spread to California and other neighboring areas, scientists warn.

Several people in Oregon have died after being infected with the new VGIIc genotype of Cryptococcus gattii. In the 21 Pacific Northwest cases analyzed by researchers, the strain has a death rate of about 25 percent.

"This novel fungus is worrisome because it appears to be a threat to otherwise healthy people. Typically, we see this fungal disease associated with transplant recipients and HIV-infected patients, but that is not what we are seeing," said Edmond Byrnes III, a graduate student in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, in a news release.

Because this C. gatti strain is so dangerous, the researchers are calling for increased awareness and vigilance. Symptoms -- which can appear two to several months after exposure -- may include a cough that lasts weeks, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, meningitis-related headache and weight loss. In animals, symptoms include a runny nose, breathing problems, nervous system problems and bumps under the skin.

The infection can be treated but there is no vaccine to prevent it.

The study appears online April 22 in the journal PLoS Pathogens.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about cryptococcus.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Duke University Medical Center, news release, April 22, 2010

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