Source Of Fungal Illness Discovered In Eastern Washington Soil

May 5, 2014

A disease-causing fungus thought to be confined to the deserts of the Southwest has been discovered in soil samples from eastern Washington. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now trying to figure out if the fungus may be living in other parts of the Northwest.

Coccidioides’ tube-shaped cells living in the soil can break into spores and go airborne.
Credit CDC

It's called coccidioides. Airborne spores from the fungus can cause a lung infection commonly known as valley fever. It's thought that this fungus survives in arid climates by lurking in rodent burrows.

Jack Rogers is a mycologist at Washington State University.

“You know, I have been interested in the fungus for years and years,” Rogers said. “But I only found out last week that actually had the fungus in this state, apparently established here.”

The discovery stems from a series of soil samples collected in 2010 and 2011 after three separate people in the Tri-Cities area got valley fever. The samples sat in storage until the CDC developed a genetic test for the fungus.

Federal health officials now plan to work with doctors and veterinarians to try to identify cases of valley fever and see if coccidioides is living in arid places of Idaho and eastern Oregon as well. Valley fever often seems like the flu. In rare cases, it can infect the bones, joints and spine.

The discovery raises the question of whether coccidioides is in fact a native of the Northwest, but just went undetected before now.

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