A Wild Ride May Have Brought Deadly Fungus to Oregon

It kills almost a third of its victims, and it’s everywhere – but don’t worry, infections are actually quite rare. The fungus among us is cryptococcus gattii, and earlier this month, we learned how it may have arrived in Oregon.

Dr. David Engelthaler and Dr. Arturo Casadevall have released a study suggesting that the deadly fungus may have reached Oregon through an unlikely chain of events involving the Panama Canal and a tsunami. The fungus is typically found in tropical climes like Australia and Thailand, making its presence in the Pacific Northwest something of a mystery.

In the American Society for Microbiology’s journal mBio, Engelthaler and Casadevall propose that cryptococcus was first brought to the Northwest by ships passing through the Panama Canal in the early 20th century. Upon arrival, the ships would empty their ballast tanks of ocean water gathered from the Atlantic. Organisms that happened to be living in the ballast water, like cryptococcus, would have went along for the ride to the Pacific Ocean, as well as the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Then in 1964, the “Good Friday” earthquake in Alaska triggered a massive tsunami along the Pacific coast, bringing the contaminated seawater inland. Later that year, the Willamette River underwent a flood that covered 153,000 acres of the valley. According to Engelthaler and Casadevall, between the two disasters the fungus became entrenched in the local soil.

Engelthaler says “It’s important to understand, ‘How did the fungus get there? Because perhaps we can understand where the fungus could show up next.”

From 2004 – 2010, Oregon had the highest incidence of cryptococcus infection in the United States: 43 cases, 12 of which resulted in death.. People can become infected after breathing the fungus in. Emilio DeBess of the Oregon Health Authority told the Oregonian the fungus is “virtually impossible to avoid” in the Willamette Valley. “The organism is in the environment, much like salmonella is in chicken.” However, he says that infections are “extremely rare,” only around 20 every year, and that “You should continue to do what you enjoy to do.”

By Brandon Urey