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Newfoundland travellers contract mysterious disease traced to cave trip in Cuba

People tour a cave in Matanzas, Cuba in this undated photo. A Newfoundland woman is warning travellers to do their research before adventurous excursions abroad after she was hospitalized from a mysterious disease traced back to a cave she visited in Cuba. The illness was eventually identified as a respiratory infection called histoplasmosis, or "cave disease," caused by spores from bird or bat droppings in damp soil. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Terry Murphy MANDATORY CREDIT

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A woman is warning travellers to thoroughly research any adventurous excursions abroad after she and several other Newfoundlanders became ill from a mysterious disease traced back to a Cuban cave.

Terri Murphy of Paradise, N.L., travelled to Cuba with her husband on April 27, but her fever-like symptoms didn’t appear until May 21, weeks after she returned home.

X-rays showed nodules in her lungs and tests showed low blood counts. Her condition baffled local doctors, who initially thought her lung infection could be some form of pneumonia. 

The clue to her illness came from a chance meeting she’d made on the trip with a family of Newfoundlanders who had a mutual friend.

Murphy and her husband had travelled with the group on a tour that included cave diving in the Matanzas province of Cuba. Back in Canada, a number of their new friends had also fallen ill.

Murphy and the travellers informed their doctors that they knew each other and were experiencing the same symptoms, and their illness was identified as a respiratory infection called histoplasmosis, or “cave disease.”

Murphy said pinpointing the source of her condition offered some relief from what she called a terrible, alarming health issue that she feared might have been cancerous.

“You didn’t want to be too excited about the fact that somebody else was sick, but at least cancer was off the table,” Murphy said by phone Wednesday.

Eastern Health, Murphy’s local health authority, has issued an advisory for travellers heading to the Americas, Africa, East Asia and Australia to avoid contracting the disease.

Histoplasmosis is a treatable disease, contracted by breathing in airborne spores where bird or bat droppings are disturbed in damp soil.

Eastern Health described its symptoms as including “cough and chest pain, shortness of breath, fever and chills, headaches and flu-like illness.” The disease is treatable and most people who contract it never show symptoms, but it can be serious for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

The health authority said the advisory was issued after a low number of histoplasmosis cases were confirmed in the Eastern Health region. An exact number of cases could not be provided for privacy reasons, but Murphy said she’s heard of at least five others.

While the disease is treatable, it is rare in Newfoundland, making treatment more complicated. Murphy said she’s waiting to receive an anti-fungal medication that had to be approved from outside of the province, and she’s been told she’ll have to take the drug for treatment for the next three months to a year.

Murphy said she’s still experiencing fatigue and a persistent cough, and her voice is still scratchy and strained from an illness she contracted from what was one of the most breathtaking excursions on her vacation.

“It was absolutely amazing,” she said of the cave. “It was so pristine and so nice-looking when we went in.”

Murphy said she’d advise other travellers to do a thorough background check on the regions they’re visiting and any planned excursions.

“It’s without a doubt that you have to go and you have to research the excursion that you’re going on,” she said. “You have to know the region, the areas, 100 per cent.”

Murphy wrote a Facebook post about her experience that’s been shared thousands of times, and she said people as far as France have written to her about experiencing similar, undiagnosed symptoms after travelling abroad.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press