Warn people of deadly fungus symptoms, says B.C. victim's sister
Last Updated: Thursday, November 25, 2004 | 8:04 PM ET
CBC News
A Vancouver Island woman says health authorities must do more to warn people about the risks of the rare tropical fungus that killed her sister.
Debbie Chow of Langford lost her only sister, Esther Young, to Cryptococcus neoformans variety gattii three years ago.

The fungus, which makes its home in trees across the east coast of Vancouver Island, attacks the lungs and central nervous system of the victim.

Debbie Chow

Chow said the infection left her sister in constant pain, nausea and violent seizures.

She was in and out of hospital for months, and Chow said only after she had a spinal tap was she diagnosed with having the fungus. She later died.

"I know my sister," said Chow. "She thought it was menopause. At one point she thought it was just the flu and in fact it was neither one."

Since the disease was first found on the island in 1999, 101 people have contracted it after breathing fungal spores in the air.

"So far we have four cases where cryptococcus has either caused or contributed to death," said Laura MacDougall, an epidemiologist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. The cases are described in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

FROM NOV. 23, 2004: Deadly tropical fungus settles in B.C.

As many as 12 people who have contracted the fungus died, but the others were elderly and their deaths were blamed on other causes, said Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer.

"I think it would be unwise to try to create a huge amount of unwanted anxiety about a disease which is a very rare," said Kendall.

* CBC British Columbia

The rate of cryptococcal deaths on the island is about five times lower than deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, said Dr. Murray Fyfe, the medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Since the B.C. Centre for Disease Control focuses on infections not deaths, it's not clear how many people may have died from the disease.

Meanwhile, Chow is calling on health authorities to do more to warn people about the symptoms, which include chest pains, a stubborn cough, severe headaches, neck stiffness and difficulty breathing.

"I wonder how many people are wandering around with cryptococcal who think they have a flu," said Chow.