Thankfully, Crytococcus gattii is extremely rare. Since 2010, just 40 people in the United States have died as a result of infections caused by the fungus. But it appears the fungal infections' range is expanding.
When it does strike and sicken, the consequences of infection from C. gattii can be dire. Found in soil and trees, the fungus has killed dozens of people in the Pacific Northwest during the last decade, sometimes causing severe brain and lung infections.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention, human diseases from C. gattii are still very rare. What's worrisome is that the fungus is spreading to new territories, driven in part by climate change. Once confined to tropical climates, it's now been able to live in the warming waters of British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington since the initial outbreak in 2004.
Since 2009, 25 cases have occurred from areas outside of the Pacific Northwest, including infections caused by a strain of the fungus that is unrelated to the earlier outbreak in the Northwest. The expansion of C. gattii infections includes cases in eight states across the United States: Georgia, California, Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, and Montana.
"What this means is that the environmental belt that is hospitable to this type of fungus, which is spread in airborne spores, may now be spreading because of the warming climate," explains investigative journalist Linda Marsa, author of the new book Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health—And How We Can Save Ourselves.
This is just the latest case of disease spreading because of climate change. Others include Valley Fever, also a fungal disease, which is spreading to newly warming habitats. "We're also seeing diseases that are transmitted by disease vectors, i.e., insects, deer, rodents—that are spreading to newly warming habitats," Marsa says. "These include infectious diseases like West Nile virus, and dengue feverx—there's an outbreak right now in the Florida Keys—and Lyme disease, which was first identified in Connecticut in the 1970s but has now spread into Canada."
This underscores that climate and human health are intricately interrelated. A warming planet is presenting—and will continue to present—major challenges to the healthcare system. In fact, public health officials think that climate change is the number one threat to public health in the 21st century. Vector-related diseases, heat-related deaths, and disability related to higher temperatures, along with extreme weather events like hurricanes, and floods—like the ones that have washed away vast swaths of Colorado—will stress the healthcare system, Marsa says.
While the news of the expanding range of Crytococcus gattii fungus shouldn't change your daily activities—it's still extremely rare in the U.S.—it's important to pay attention to the link between climate and health. For more information, read The Surprising Filth You Inhale When It's Hot.
Published on: September 19, 2013
Updated on: September 23, 2013