A rare fungal disease that affects human lungs and is often spread through bat and bird droppings has been confirmed in central Alberta.
Provincial researchers with Alberta Precision Labs have confirmed 45 cases of histoplasmosis in Alberta between 2011 and 2018, 15 of which were determined to be locally acquired. The majority of those cases were found in rural areas around Sundre, Stettler, Stony Plain and Spruce Grove.
Alberta Health Services announced the discovery Thursday.
Tanis Dingle, a clinical microbiologist at Alberta Precision Laboratories and assistant professor at the University of Alberta, said the discovery is important as histoplasomis typically occurs in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys as well as southern parts of Ontario and Quebec.
Prior to the discovery of the locally-acquired cases, Minnesota was the northernmost place histoplasmosis was thought to to be found.
“This is still considered a very, very rare infection if you compare it to COVID-19,” said Dingle. “This is 15 cases over a seven year period so it’s very rare. I don’t think people should be too anxious about this finding. I think it’s just an awareness that it can occur in the province.”
Histoplasmosis is a lung disease that is caused by inhaling certain fungal spores that are found in dirt or droppings from bats and birds. The spores are usually contracted by people in old homes and churches as well as construction sites and parks.
Once infected, people who have inhaled the spores can feel flu-like symptoms including cough, fever, chills and headaches.
Dingle said symptoms are mild in people with a strong immune system, however they can become more severe in people who are immunocompromised. She said in rare cases, the infection can spread from a pulmonary infection to other parts of the body, including the brain.
But the infection is not spread between humans, said Dingle. “It’s aerosolization of those particles that causes histoplasmosis and once you have it you cannot transmit it to someone else.”
She said cases remained stable throughout the seven-year period. Dingle said she now hopes to look back on the past three years to see if there has been any further increase in cases and to hopefully conduct soil studies in the province to see if they can recover the organism in Alberta.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) issued a statement in 2019 that 16 cases of hantavirus, another type of infection caused from inhaling infected particles from rodent urine or feces, were confirmed in the province between 2014 and 2018. They issued a warning stating infection in the lungs and respiratory system can potentially be fatal.
They urged Albertans to take precautions against the disease, such as opening up doors and windows when clearing out mice droppings.