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Bird Fungus May Threaten People

January 31, 2000

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ People with weakened immune systems who come in contact with birds may be putting themselves at risk for developing life-threatening illnesses, according to a study.

The meningitis death of 72-year-old Boston woman might have been caused by breathing an airborne fungus found in bird feces, researchers report in a study published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The woman was infected with the Cryptococcus neoformans fungus and died 39 days after she was diagnosed. The fungus enters through the lungs and the resulting infection can develop into meningitis or other ailments.

The fungus typically causes no problems for people with normal immune systems. However, the woman had undergone a liver transplant in 1989 and was taking rejection-fighting drugs, which suppress the body’s immune system.

The woman did not live on the same floor as or provide care for a pet cockatoo kept in the house where she lived, but she did pass its cage often.

Researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine found that the fungus strains in the bird’s feces and in the woman’s body were virtually the same, which they say strongly suggests the woman was infected by the bird.

Though many researchers believe exposure to birds and cryptococcal infection in humans are linked, it has never been proven. The fungus is found throughout nature, said Dr. Arturo Casadevall of Einstein Medical Center, one of the study’s authors.

``We don’t know a lot on the basis of one case so we shouldn’t be making any sweeping recommendations about what people should do,″ Casadevall said. ``Ideally, what we want is for physicians and patients to be aware that this is a potential problem for immunosuppressed people.″

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