Karen Bartlett is trying to find out how a killer fungus -- typically spread by koala bears -- ended up on Vancouver Island.

"How the organism got to the island is probably the 64 thousand dollar question," said Bartlett, an environmental hygenist at UBC.

A microscopic organism with a big name -- cryptoccoccus gattii -- is a tropical fungus. But it has found a home on trees on the island's East coast, and continues to spread to the Lower Mainland either by air, vehicles or people.

"We know that it can move on soles of shoes so if you're walking around in an area where the organism is, you can walk it off and keep walking onto the mainland with it," Barlett said.

Even though it is rare -- 176 British Columbians have fallen ill from it in the past seven years -- eight have died from infection with this fungus.

"This is a very slow moving disease," said Eleni Galanis of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

But a recent report has found some are at higher risk than others.

"People who smoke or who have underlying conditions like a history of cancer or lunch disease might be at high risk of infection," she said.

Breathing in the fungal spores can lead to pneumonia or even meningitis.

"So people might have a fever, chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing," she said. "And in some cases it might go into the blood stream and into the central nervous system, causing meningitis."

Researchers say climate change will bring a lot more unusual infectious diseases -- and this fungus is one they continue to monitor.

Dr.Rhonda Low's additional comments:

Can you tell which trees have this fungus?

No, the trees look well and because the fungus is microscopic, you can't see them with the naked eye.

Can people test trees in their neighbourhood?

Testing is being done on the island and Lower Mainland to determine the general distribution of the fungus but it can still exist in soil and air even if the trees are not affected -- and there are no fungicides to help.

Is there anything you can do to prevent this disease?

There are no special precautions that you can take to avoid exposure. It's not spread from person to person. Some folks are infected and will never have symptoms. Each year about 25 people become ill with symptoms, which include:

  • a cough lasting weeks or months
  • unexplained shortness of breath
  • a severe headache
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • weight loss

The symptoms can come on from a few weeks to several months after exposure. But the bottom line: it's still more beneficial to get outdoors because the risk of getting sick is very low. You just need to know that if you've been feeling ill with these symptoms for awhile -- see your doctor to get tested and diagnosed. Pets can get sick too, so talk it over with your vet.