EDMONTON -- Infectious disease experts said new research shows the fungal disease histoplasmosis – which is transmitted through bat and bird droppings – is now found in Alberta.

The fungus can be present in contaminated dust particles, and when inhaled, patients can develop respiratory infections.

Symptoms include cough, fever, muscle aches, joint pain, rashes and headaches.

The disease is not contagious and can only be contracted by breathing in the fungus.

A study of 45 confirmed cases in Alberta – between 2011 and 2018 – determined 15 of the cases were locally-acquired. They were mainly found in rural areas of central Alberta including Sundre, Stettler, Stony Plain and Spruce Grove.

“We were surprised at how many cases were locally acquired, as histoplasmosis has always been considered a travel-related infection,” said Dr. Tanis Dingle, Alberta Precision Laboratories' (APL) lead clinical microbiologist for fungal diseases in a news release. “We now know that it is definitely living in Alberta and has the potential to infect people who come in contact with it.” 

A news release said that the previous geographic range of the fungus did not expand further northwest than Minnesota but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now redrawn its maps.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) "persons whose occupations involve contact with the soil" are at higher risk including farmers and poultry keepers, landscapers, construction and restoration workers, and people who monitor bird populations.

“Histoplasmosis can be a challenging disease to diagnosis and to treat, and patients often spend months before the correct diagnosis is made. Awareness that the disease is here is an essential first step for doctors to be able to consider the diagnosis and order the appropriate tests,” said Dr. Ilan Schwartz, assistant professor, division of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta (U of A) in a news release.   

The research was conducted by APL and the U of A's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The team is also researching whether climate change could be a factor in the spread of histoplasmosis to geographies further north.