Coming our way? – Climate change may be responsible for the spread of a potentially deadly fungus among animals and people in the US and Canada. Since freezing can kill the fungus, climate warming have something to do with it showing up along the Pacific Coast.

It started out infecting farm animals and then pets. When it moved to people, AIDS patients (and other people with compromised immune systems) got it first. However, like a virus, the fungus keeps mutating and may soon be able to infect healthy people. The new strain appears to be especially deadly, since about 25% of 21 people who have gotten it so far in the US and Canada have died.

Symptoms can appear several months after exposure, although most people never develop symptoms. Those who do may have a persistent cough, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches fever, nighttime sweats and weight loss. In animals the symptoms are a runny nose and breathing problems. Most people who do get it are likely to think they have the flu. While it can be treated, there is no vaccine against it.

The airborne fungus is called Cryptococcus gattii and is usually found only in the tropics, but it is expected to spread deeper into California and from there into the rest of the southern US. Reuters news service quotes researcher Edmond Byrnes as saying, “Our findings suggest further expansion into neighboring regions is likely to occur.” If it continues to spread, it will be most likely to visit Northern California, where the weather is similar to Vancouver, where it originated on the West Coast, and Oregon, where it is infecting people now. It’s unlikely to spread eastward, due to the freezing winters in that area.

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