Health officials say there’s little worry with fungus

Health officials say there’s little worry with fungus »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - A new study about a potentially deadly fungus in the Pacific Northwest sparked so much fear across the region this week that the Oregon Health Department wanted to get the message out Friday that the average healthy person has little to worry about.

State health officials emphasized how rare the infection from the relatively new strain of VGIIc Cryptococcus gattii is and said early numbers in Oregon, Washington and northern California show there have been 53 cases in the last seven years. They did acknowledge 10 of the people infected died.

The study, from researchers at Duke University, examined the strain that’s shown up in Oregon.

It is an airborne fungus that is present in trees and in the soil. People get sick by inhaling it and can lead to pneumonia and meningitis, but state health officials said it is primarily a concern for those who have diminished immunity like those with HIV or who have had organ transplants.

That was different than what a Duke University researcher by the name of Edmond Byrnes III was quoted as saying in an article posted on MSNBC.com on Thursday.

“This novel fungus is worrisome because it appears to be a threat to otherwise healthy people. Typically, we more often see this fungal disease associated with transplant recipients and HIV-infected patients, but that is not what we are seeing yet,” he said.

But Patty Wentz, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said Thursday that statement was just plain wrong.

“It’s a very rare disease,” she said. “It does not affect otherwise healthy people. It affects people who are already ill from other causes like respiratory disease, asthma and transplant patients.”

And on Friday, interim epidemiologist for the state of Oregon Dr. Katrina Hedberg echoed Wentz’ response to Byrnes’ statement.

“The general public doesn’t need to be unduly concerned about it because it’s extremely rare but getting a diagnosis is very important,” she said.

State officials said they do expect to see more cases in the coming years both because of increased awareness and the spread of fungal spores.

They said it originated in tropical places like Australia, was imported on logs to Vancouver British Columbia and is now working its way down the West Coast.

Meanwhile, 76-year-old Bob Lewis of Portland was infected by the fungus and it nearly killed him, but he said he doesn’t know where exactly he was when he breathed in the fungal spores.

Lewis used to be an avid outdoorsman and world traveler. He survived the deadly fungus after symptoms began in the spring of 2007.

He said he began experiencing extreme shortness of breath and by that fall his respiratory problems worsened. His wife, Joan, said it was only because of the cautious care of doctors at OHSU that they learned what was growing in his left lung: Cryptococcus gattii.

“We couldn’t pronounce it, no less spell it. And we’d never heard of it of course,” she said. “At the time he was admitted to ICU I was told that if they couldn’t diminish the pressure on his breathing, we’d be lucky if he lived three days.”

“It’s a monster, and it’s a monster if it’s not gotten, if it’s not seen early and attended to,” Bob Lewis said.

“My hope is for doctors to be made aware of it so they know what to look for,” Joan said.

With only 53 cases in a population of 50 million people, a Vanderbilt professor said a person is just as likely to be hit by lightning.

In Oregon, 30 animals, including cats, dogs, llamas and sheep also got infected with the fungus and about half died.