Rare Fungal Infection Strikes Joplin Tornado Survivors

On May 22, 2011 much of Joplin, Missouri was destroyed when an EF-5 tornado ripped through the small town killing 151 in its path. (The EF-5 rating is the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita tornado scale.) The storm ravaged a one-mile wide, thirteen-mile long path through Joplin, destroying 8000 homes and apartment complexes, and leaving thousands homeless.  The tornado that hit Joplin, MO is the deadliest twister to strike in the United States since modern record keeping began in 1950. As if the people of Joplin haven’t suffered enough, a new threat has emerged, as a potentially lethal fungal infection has been contracted by at least 9 tornado survivors, killing 3. (The Jasper county coroner has so far stated that 1 was killed as a direct result of the fungal infection while the other two victims had other medical conditions that could have contributed to their deaths.) Zygomycosis (also known as mucormycosis) is caused when commonly present fungi, found in soil and decaying vegetation, becomes embedded under the skin. These secondary skin-fungal infections are sometimes seen in survivors of mass trauma where multiple injuries and skin lacerations are treated as quickly as possible in makeshift emergency shelters (such as the 2004 Indonesian tsunami).  Doctors began seeing patients in Joplin with fungal infections a week after the tornado. Patients have visible mold growing in their wounds, and surgery is typically required to remove the dead tissue. Zygomycosis can also invade the brain, lungs, or sinuses, and generally kills half of its victims. Despite the severity of zygomycosis, it should be stressed that people should not panic. The infection does not spread from person to person and does not invade normal, intact skin.

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