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Sun, fun & fungus

Tony Capasso (The State Journal-Register) -- At least 18 Illinois college students may have more than memories from spending spring break in Acapulco.

They also may have picked up a fungal disease called histoplasmosis.

Preliminary information is that all of the ill people either stayed in or spent time on the premises of the Calinda Beach Hotel in Acapulco, Mexico, between March 3 and March 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Roughly 15 students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have complained of the fever, headache and coughing that are typical of the illness. Two of the students became ill enough to require hospitalization, one at Carle Hospital in Urbana and the other at a hospital in the student's home town, according to university spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

In all, she said, 24 U of I students had been at the hotel last month. The school Thursday would not release the names of the ill students.

Five students from Illinois State University in Normal also stayed at or visited the hotel, ISU spokesman Jay Groves said, and three have complained of an illness that could be histoplasmosis.

An unknown number of students from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston also vacationed at or visited the hotel, university spokeswoman Shelly Flock said.

"All the doctors on EIU medical staff have been alerted to the symptoms of histoplasmosis," she said, adding that, so far, no EIU students have complained of histoplasmosis symptoms.

The fungus that causes the illness, called histoplasma capsulatum, spreads through the air, said Dr. Donald Greeley, a Carle Hospital infectious disease expert. The fungus lives in soil and is sometimes found in the droppings of birds and bats. People typically are exposed after inhaling dust particles loaded with the fungus' spores, he said.

The disease usually is not serious unless a person is exposed to heavy concentrations of the spores, Greeley said. But people who have compromised immune systems, such as chemotherapy patients or people infected with the AIDS virus, may become more seriously ill.

"It has varying manifestations, depending on how large the exposure is," he said.

In the United States, the fungus is found most often in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys.

"It's endemic in the Midwest," Greeley said. "If we did skin and (blood) tests on everyone living here, we'd probably find that up to 25 percent showed signs of having had histoplasmosis."

Most of the time, the illness resembles the flu, with fever and coughing, Greeley said. Chest X-rays often reveal fluid build-up.

Greeley said his impression was that none of the U of I students were seriously ill.

"It doesn't sound life-threatening," he said.

(c) 2001 The State Journal-Register

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