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An island of natural airborne killers
Vancouver Island rises abruptly out of the Pacific, a green seductress tempting nature lovers with long, sandy curves and the ocean shimmering at her hemline.
But word has spread that something sinister grows here. Invisible to the naked eye, it lives on the trees, in the soil, the water and, at times, dances in mid-air. It has struck islanders in unprecedented numbers over the past eight years, infecting those who have walked in the woods or done nothing riskier than breathe.
Where has it come from? It was supposed to be a native of the tropics and subtropics, at home in Australia's wilderness or the jungles of Papua New Guinea. No medical book had ever described its presence north of California. Some guessed it came to B.C. by way of an imported eucalyptus tree, or blew in on the warm Pacific wind of the Pineapple Express. Whatever it was, health authorities initially took the outbreak of Cryptococcus gattii for a blip that would quickly wither.
They were wrong. The life-threatening tropical fungus has entrenched itself on Vancouver Island's east coast, sickening humans and animals — cats, dogs, pet birds, llamas, ferrets, horses and the prized Dall's porpoise. For a pathogen never expected in this corner of the world, the C. gattii strain in B.C. is flourishing at a rate at least 30 times more infectious than any other on the planet.
Illnesses carried by insects and rodents are not only on the rise, but popping up in new corners of the world as tropical diseases shift northward. Malaria and encephalitis have emerged in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Mosquitoes that carry dengue fever have been found at stunning new heights of about 2,000 metres above sea level in Mexico and in the Andes Mountains of South America.
North America has suffered the emergence of hantavirus in 1993, the expanding terrain of ticks that ferry Lyme disease and, in 1999, the arrival of the West Nile virus.