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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Johns Hopkins: Did Long Ago Tsunamis Lead to Mysterious, Tropical Fungal Outbreak in Pacific Northwest?

The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 and the tsunamis it spawned may have washed a tropical fungus ashore, leading to a subsequent outbreak of often-fatal infections among people in coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, according to a paper co-authored by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope.

In the paper, published October 1 in the journal mBio, the co-authors confront the mystery of the Cryptococcus gattii outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. The outbreak, involving at least several hundred known cases, has been ongoing since 1999, with cases still occurring in humans and wildlife. It has long puzzled epidemiologists because the fungal subtypes isolated from the vast majority of infected patients resemble subtypes normally seen in Brazil and nearby areas of South America.

The co-authors, microbiologist Dr. Arturo Casadevall, Alfred and Jill Sommer Professor and chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Bloomberg School, and epidemiologist Dr. David Engelthaler, associate professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, posit that increased shipping after the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal brought C. gattii from south to north, possibly in ships’ ballast tanks. Decades later, the tsunamis following the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 brought the fungus widely ashore and into coastal forest areas.

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