Public health officials in Manitoba are building a profile on blastomycosis, a rare but potentially deadly illness that recently became a reportable disease in the province.

Blastomycosis, which is caused by a fungus in the soil, has been showing up in southeastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario for several years.The illness can be fatal if not treated.

'If they know they are going to be digging around in the dirt in northwestern Ontario or wooded areas, wearing masks may be of benefit.' —Dr. Greg Hammond

Since Manitoba declared in September 2006 doctors need to notify public health authorities when they diagnose a caseof blastomycosis,officials say 14 cases have been diagnosed in men, women and children.

While the number of reported cases isn't high, it is significant, says Dr. Greg Hammond, head of public health for Manitoba.

"It can be a serious disease, so that's why we think it's important to track this and try to understand more about it," he said.

Hammond says he doesn't know how many peoplehave died from illnesses related to blastomycosis. Most people who contractthe disease survive and recover with proper diagnosis and treatment, Hammond noted.

One death in Manitoba two weeks ago has been linked to blastomycosis, and in an extreme case last year, a boy required reconstructive surgery after the infection destroyed part of his skull.

"This is probably the one place in the country that if you are going to get it… we're going tomake a speedy diagnosis and… we'll start therapy right away with the right treatment," said Dr. John Embil, an infectious disease specialist at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

Infectious disease specialists are learning more about the illness. One study is examining conditions that might predispose people to infection, Embil said.Some of the findings so far suggest people with outdoor occupations, such as firefighters, lumberyard workers and forestry workers, might be more at risk.

The spore that causes the infection is airborne, Hammond said, adding that people who work in the soil in affected areas may want to take special precautions.

"I don't think there are well-known interventions we can do, but people should be aware that when they are exposed to, for example, soil, [when] they are doing construction work at a cottage site or in a forested area… they should cover up," he said.

"They should wear protective clothing, and it's mainly respiratory so if they know they are going to be digging around in the dirt in northwestern Ontario or wooded areas, wearing masks may be of benefit."

Blastomycosis can affect people and animals, and it's believed victims can become ill months after exposure.

Symptoms of blastomycosis are often similar to the flu, pneumonia or a skin infection, such as fever, chills, coughing, and pain in muscles, joints and chest.