June 13, 2011 JOPLIN, Mo. - A rare fungal infection caused by mold spores in airborne dirt, wood and other debris has contributed to the death of at least four victims of the May 22 tornado, health officials report.
They said the infection, known as mucormycosis, penetrates the body through puncture wounds and lacerated skin. It was detected a week after the tornado in several hospitalized victims.
The tornado's death toll has been revised to 151, the highest since 181 people died in a Woodward, Okla., twister in 1947.
The Missouri Department of Health urged anyone with an open wound that continues to redden and worsen to seek medical attention.
More than 1,100 people were hospitalized with tornado injuries. Many of them suffered puncture wounds from flying glass, wood and metal. The mold spores that create the fungus are commonly found in dirt and wood.
"We've definitely documented the tissue invasion of the fungus and the growth of the fungus," said Dr. Uwe Schmidt, an infectious disease specialist with Joplin's Freeman Hospital.
"Some of these patients have died," he added, but a link between the infection and their deaths has not been determined yet. He said their tornado wounds could have been the main reason.
Schmidt said the tornado's winds, which ranged beyond 200 mph, caused the fungus to become airborne and infect open wounds not adequately treated right afterwards.
Mucormycosis is treatable with intravenous antibiotics. Yet the volume of the tornado injuries and their treatment at makeshift medical centers may have resulted in the fungus going undetected for several days, said Schmidt.
The Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control said mucormycosis is a "very rare infection" in the United States, but that it moves aggressively into the blood system when it occurs.
The CDC said the death rate among people with weakened immune systems is 90 percent. It is also high for individuals with diabetes and cancer. But it is not passed from person to person.
Local public health and hospital officials said it does not appear the fungus poses risk to the tornado cleanup crews, contractors or others involved in removing rubble.
Freeman Hospital officials said they have treated at least five cases of the fungal infection and that they believe it contributed to the deaths of four people.
In addition, several cases were reported at Springfield, Mo., hospitals, where many tornado patients were taken.
"It can spread very fast, and it can spread every day," Schmidt said.
Details for this story were provided by the Joplin, Mo., Globe.