SPOKANE, Wash. -- A fungus that can launch a fatal illness has been found for the first time in the soil of Washington.

Officials for Washington State University say the fungus can cause an illness called valley fever. The fungus is normally found in semi-arid parts of the Southwest.

Valley fever occurs when the soil-dwelling fungus becomes airborne, releasing spores that get lodged in the lungs of humans and certain animals, especially dogs.

In the most severe form, cocci spores break from the lungs and cycle through the bloodstream, setting up infections that destroy bones, cause skin abscesses and inflame the brain. The CDC estimates it kills 160 people annually.

Three unrelated cases were diagnosed in Eastern Washington in 2010-11.

Scientists for Washington State say that soil samples taken recently from the vicinity tested positive for the fungus, proving it can survive here. All three people who got sick in Eastern Washington survived.

In early April, Washington s health department sent advisories to physicians and veterinarians statewide to inform them.

Valley fever is not known to be contagious and there s no reason for the public to be alarmed, but it is important to understand its cause and symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can ward off serious complications in humans and animals alike, said Washington state public health veterinarian Ron Wohrle who, working with multiple agencies, will conduct more soil testing as part of a surveillance plan that is being devised.

The idea here is to draw on the expertise of a variety of health specialists and environmental scientists with knowledge of how cocci is maintained in soil in other parts of the country to determine the environmental conditions that may support the survival of this fungal pathogen in Washington soils, he said.

Click for more on valley fever from the Mayo Clinic

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