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Fungus outbreak hits Joplin tornado survivors

As if Joplin residents didn’t have enough problems in the wake of last month’s tornado that destroyed large segments of the town, a physician in the Missouri community says that some of the survivors are confronting a potentially lethal fungus infection. At least nine survivors of the tornado have contracted the infections, and a third of them have died -- although it is not clear if the fungus is the cause of death -- Dr. Uwe Schmidt of the Freeman Health System told the Springfield News-Leader.

The fungal infection in question is commonly called zygomycosis, although the name has formally changed to mucormycosis. It is caused by several different fungi that are commonly found in soil and decaying vegetation. Those at highest risk are people with weakened immune systems. The fungus typically invades the sinuses, brain and lungs and generally kills about half its victims. It can produce a variety of symptoms, depending on where the initial infection occurs. Treatment involves surgery to remove tissue that has been killed by the fungus and antifungal medications given intravenously.

Joplin victims have typically suffered from skin infections because the high winds embedded soil and other debris under the skin, allowing the infections to take root. The exact number of victims is unclear, but Schmidt said he knows of at least nine cases. Three or four of them have died, he said. “It’s difficult to say if it [the fungus] killed them, but it was definitely a contributing factor,” he told the News-Leader.

Patients with the infection have generally appeared at hospitals with visible fungus growing in wounds or on the skin. In some cases, Schmidt said, it appears that wounds were not thoroughly cleaned during the massive rescue effort that followed the May 22 tornado. The Springfield-Greene County Health Department sent a memo to local physicians and hospitals on Monday, warning them to be on the outlook for such infections and to ensure that those infected receive prompt treatment.

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At least 151 people died in the tornado, the deadliest in the U.S. since the 1940s.


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