Several people injured when a massive tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., last month have become sickened by an uncommon, deadly fungal infection and at least three have died.
Several people injured when a massive tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., last month have become sickened by an uncommon, deadly fungal infection and at least three have died, although public-health officials said Friday that a link between the infection and the deaths was not certain.
Also Friday, the death toll from the tornado was raised to 151.
Eight tornado victims have fallen ill from the mysterious infection, each of whom had “multiple injuries and secondary wound infections,” said Jacqueline Lapine, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Citing confidentiality rules, officials declined to discuss the treatment or condition of the patients.
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The fungus that causes the infection, believed to be mucormycosis, is most commonly found in soil and wood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is studying samples from the eight Joplin patients.
“It is a very aggressive and severe infection,” said Dr. Benjamin Park, chief of the epidemiology team in the CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch. “It is also very rare.”
Mucormycosis enters the body either via a puncture wound or when a victim breathes in its mold spores, officials said. Those who have weakened immune systems have a mortality rate as high as 90 percent. Other people at risk include those with diabetes or cancer and burn victims.
On Friday, the Jasper County coroner’s office said 151 people died as a result of the May 22 tornado. It is revising the toll as additional death reports come in from hospitals where tornado victims had been taken.
That figure includes the three dead victims who appear to have had the fungal infection, although the cause of those deaths has not yet been established officially because they had other injuries, said Rob Chappel, the Jasper County coroner.
Even before the updated death toll was released Friday, the tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern record-keeping began. Up to one-third of the town’s buildings were damaged, including the city’s main hospital.
Health officials said they knew of no other cases of mucormycosis arising from this spring’s tornadoes that killed hundreds of people and injured thousands in the Midwest and South.
Health officials said even busy hospitals might see no more than a case or two of mucormycosis each year. Mucormycosis and similar fungal infections that enter the skin through puncture wounds usually can be prevented once a wound is disinfected in a hospital, health officials said. But in a natural disaster, wound treatment may be inadequate.