Doctors alerted as airborne fungus spreads to B.C. mainland

Public health officials in B.C. say potentially deadly tree fungus has spread from Vancouver Island to mainland. Doctors, veterinarians on alert for cases.

A potentially deadly fungus has spread from Vancouver Island to the province's mainland, officials from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control warn.

The microscopic fungus, which lives on trees and in soil, causes persistent headaches, coughing and night sweats. People and animals can become infected by breathing in the spores.

In rare cases, the fungus Cryptococcus gattii causes cryptococcal disease, severe pneumonia, meningitis or death.

The disease has been identified in three people in the Lower Mainland. None of them visited Vancouver Island. Six cases have also been found in pets.

Previously, the fungal infection was found on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Its range has now extended to the Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast and Fraser Valley.

The centre has issued an advisory to doctors and veterinarians, but Dr. Eleni Galanis, a physician epidemiologist with the BCCDC, noted the risk of developing cryptococcal disease from the fungus still remains very low.

Galanis tells people not to panic and to enjoy their outdoor activities this season. There is nothing anyone can do to protect themselves.

"When you have the infection you'll know," said Galanis. "You'll feel sick, you should see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment."

Early diagnosis and treatment with antifungal medication are key to fighting the infection, doctors say. There is no preventive medication.

Since 1999, there have been 129 cases of the disease resulting in four deaths on Vancouver Island.