Fatal Fungus Cryptococcus Gattii: Experts Say Fears Overblown

When the rare threats "take shape in the news, a viewer may perceive a lack of control ...and may thus develop a sense of heightened anxiety or vigilance [about it]," said Kim Liebowitz, director of cardiac behavioral medicine at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Vanderbilt's Schaffner said, "If something new pops ups -- if it's novel, mysterious, and if it can strike seemingly anyone, anytime, you suddenly feel like you have no control over the situation. If the threat is disfiguring or life-threatening, if there's no preventative measures you can take against it, these elements invoke fear."

This reaction is known as behavioral conditioning, Liebowitz said, and it means that one can develop strong negative reactions to a threat just by hearing about victims and identifying with them;- no personal experience with the risk required.

Retrain Your Response

At the end of the day, the actual threat the bizarre afflictions pose for any individual is quite small, so it's better to nip needless anxiety in the bud, doctors say.

One way is to see this threat in perspective, said Dr. Robert Betts, infectious disease expert at the University of Rochester in New York.

While 21 cases of C. gattii infection have been documented to date, "hundreds or even thousands have been infected with this fungi, but only a few become ill," he said.

In other words, it's not as though anyone who walks past this spore is doomed to infection.

Also, looking at these rare risks in comparison to the none-too-rare risks we face every day can help highlight one's tendency to be overly anxious about such things, Lebowitz said.

The common fear of flying is a good example of how we misjudge danger.

"So many individuals have a fear of flying despite very safe aviation records," but these same individuals do not fear driving, "which is more dangerous," she said.

It's not the safety records or level of risk people pay attention to, she added, it's the "emotionally laden content" of the stories told about victims of the rare dangers.

As far as the fear of fatal fungi, Alcabes of Hunter College pointed out that the strain is likely to fade out soon.

"In most cases, when new strains arise, they are transient," he says.

Certainly, he said, "it's worth asking, 'Is there some new risk here?'"

But in this particular case, he said, "I see no new threat at all, just a slightly different name for an existing, and rather rare, danger."

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