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Fungal meningitis spreads in Pacific Northwest

Rare infection slowly making its way down Washington-Oregon coast

WASHINGTON — A fungus that causes meningitis has sickened 19 people, four of whom died, in Oregon and Washington over the past four years, researchers report at a meeting of microbiologists and infectious disease experts.

The new findings indicate that the culprit, a yeast-like fungus called Cryptococcus gattii, is spreading gradually down the West Coast. Before 1999, the fungus was rarely encountered in North America. But that year a case cropped up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Since then, more than 200 people in British Columbia have been diagnosed with illness stemming from the fungus.

C. gattii naturally lives in foliage, particularly eucalyptus and rubber trees. Once airborne and inhaled, the fungus can infect people and animals. It doesn’t spread from person to person or between people and animals.

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