Fatal Blastomyces fungus infection

Nearly 100 people have recently been struck by a potentially fatal fungus infection. Tragically, one of the infected has died from a strain of fungus called Blastomyces.

This outbreak occurred in the Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan USA. The mill is large and employs over 800 people. It produces 660,000 tons of paper per year mainly for commercial printing, marketing materials and labels. All the people affected in this outbreak were connected with the mill.

Fungus causes 12 to be hospitalized

The situation is serious because the fungus has already hospitalized around 12 people. For instance, one of the patients involved has now been hospitalized for weeks.

In total, the fungus so far has probably infected more than 70 people and the numbers could still be on growing.

Infections are climbing

What makes this case so exceptional is that normally the figures involved in these types of infection are often lower than ten per outbreak. But there now seems to be a shift and when Blastomyces appears the numbers affected are increasing.

Looking back in 2010 there was a record-breaking cluster recorded which comprised 55 people being infected. At the time, the outbreak happened in Wisconsin. It included 55 cases, 33 of which required hospital treatment. However, The Billerud case now appears to be the largest outbreak to date in not only Michigan but the wider US.

Blastmyces, the culprit fungi

The fungus Blastomyces which is responsible for the Billerud paper mill illnesses, typically nationally, triggers around 6,700 infections per year in the US. The corresponding mortality rate for this number is approximately 60 deaths.

However, what’s concerning now is the fungal outbreaks are impacting more people than expected. Research is showing fungal infections are getting more regular and the cases are becoming harder to treat.

Fungus and global warming?

It’s difficult to attribute the reason for this spike in cases but the impact of global warming with wetter more moist conditions could be responsible. These environments are ideal breeding grounds for fungi and could therefore be the driver behind the rise in cases.

Basically, Blastomyces is a mold which thieves in damp soil and leafy deposits in the eastern half of the United States.

Airborne spores

The way many folks become infected is by breathing in spores associated with the fungus. When the spores enter the body, they can start to infect the lungs. After this, many people can experience ‘cold-like’ symptoms with associated coughing, fevers and chest pains.

As the infection takes hold in some people, there is a possibility of further complications developing. This means infection can evolve in their organs, including the muscles, bones and even the brain.

Similar to COVID 19, the disease has a mortality rate of about one in 100 patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Mortality rates

For the past 5 years or so, the state of Michigan has usually recorded about 26 cases of the fungus every year. However, health officials are increasingly worried because it’s actually possible for the disease to kill up to 60 percent of people it infects.

A head of a local steel workers union, Gerald Kell, reflected this concern and told the Detroit Free Press “I’ve been at the paper mill for about 11 years and we have never seen anything like this.” He also said “We aren’t sure where the exposure is coming from. It’s not pinpointed; we have cases throughout the mill. It’s a 2,200-acre facility.”

Anybody at the plant, who now is reporting symptoms will be promptly tested while there is also an on-going investigation as to what has happened and the possible causes of infection.

Expert on infectious disease

Dr William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, told the British newspaper the DailyMail.com: “Outbreaks of blastomycosis are unusual and this outbreak of blastomycosis is extraordinary for its size.”

Dr. Shaffner also explained that the disease is not spread socially through contact between people and thankfully, the mill is sited away from a town.

US health officials warn about the danger of fungus

US health officials warn that blastomycosis cases are advancing across the country. To support this point, if one looks further afield, for instance in Midwest Minnesota, data on infections connected with fungus there are increasing too.

Fungus treatments

Thankfully, there are drugs available to combat this type of disease. A regularly prescribed antifungal medicine in these circumstances is a product named itraconazole. This drug’s effectiveness is mainly due to its ability to attack and degrade the cellular walls in fungus cells, causing the eventual death of a cell.

Although it’s comforting to know there are treatments on hand conversely, there are also no vaccines currently offered which can help to prevent the disease in the first place.  If someone does contract this sort of fungal infection it’s worth considering too, that patients may be required to take medications for periods of over a year.

The race to stop fungus spreading

At the mill, there is an intense deep clean now taking place in the on-site ventilation systems which was suggested by health officials, to avoid the disease spreading. High grade N95 masks too have also been issued to the workers as protection because the source of the outbreak has not been pinpointed.

Deep clean and big generosity

Employees of the mill have also hosted an event to help with the healthcare costs of the victims of the fungus. They have managed to collect over 30,000 USD.

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