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January 16th, 2013 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know: More Fungus Among Us

What's the story on the supposedly deadly microscopic fungus found in Oregon a few years ago?

drknowILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall
     
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Never mind the world’s largest fungus [“Dr. Know,” WW, Jan. 2, 2013]—it’s harmless. Wasn’t some new type of microscopic fungus discovered in Oregon a couple years back? A deadly one, that was going to kill us all? How long have we got, Doc?

—Andromeda, Strained

In hot, dry climates, presumably it’s fashionable to at least occasionally have nightmares about crawling across a desert littered with cow skulls croaking “water, water.” In the dank Northwest, though, we’re so perennially waterlogged that even our irrational fears revolve around mildew, maceration and other ways one might perish solely from terminal dampness.

Thus, when a new, potentially fatal variety of the airborne fungus, Cryptococcus, C. gattii, surfaced in Oregon in 2010, a thrill of terror coursed through Portland’s moist, sticky underwear. We’re going to mold to death! Some fungus is going to do to us what those talking devil-vines did to those kids in The Ruins!

Well, spoiler alert: We didn’t die. Moreover, there was never any real chance that more than a handful of us ever would. The new, deadly strain was simply an incrementally worse variant of a pathogen that had been known for decades.

It’s true that, if you happen to inhale C. gattii and your normal immune defenses don’t clear it, you can sicken and possibly die. But they’ve had this bug in British Columbia since 1998, and by 2007 it had managed to bump off only eight people.

The truth is that cryptococcosis is just another rare disease that you probably won’t get, and anyone who does succumb to it isn’t being felled by an exotic, alien plague. Rather, they’ve had the misfortune to die, basically, of a yeast infection—a fate which, while horrible, is perhaps more appropriate as the collective nightmare of Las Vegas than Portland.


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