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Killer fungus that can infect the public from tornadoes

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Flesh eating fungus

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is warning the public about a killer fungus that can spread after a natural disaster occurs. The fungus killed 5 people following the tornado disaster that occurred in Joplin, Missouri. Scientists discovered the flesh-eating fungus that infected 13 people by decoding the billions of chemical letters in the fungus' DNA. More information about the flesh and bone eating mold is highlighted in a recent study.

Researchers for the study that is published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) say the finding is especially important for health officials. Identifying molds that normally don't cause harm to humans and intervening early can lead to better outcomes.

The fungus, known as Apophysomyces, is "...one of the most severe fungal infections that anyone's ever seen," said David Engelthaler, Director of Programs and Operations for TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division, involved in unraveling the genome sequencing that helped identify the fungus.

Engelthaler was the senior author of the PLOS One study, and a contributing author of the NEJM study.

Researchers tracked 13 people infected with the fungus during the Class EF-5 tornado. Injuries caused by blunt trauma or a puncture wound can introduce the fungus into the body where it grows quickly. Five people died within 2 weeks.

The fungus that grows in soil and water usually doesn't cause harm unless it penetrates the skin. Lesions form that destroy the soft tissue of the body, eating away at flesh and bone. According to the CDC, infection with the spore can cause "rapid and fatal" disease in humans and is often unreported because it's difficult to identify.

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When the fungus enters the body it seals of capillaries that supply blood to the skin, causing it to rot. "It's unlike anything you've ever seen before," said Engelthaler. It's unreal. It looks like there is no way this person can be alive."

One patient who sustained a chest wound required a titanium rib cage Engelthaler said. The only way to control destruction of skin and bone is to remove dead tissue with a process known as wound debridement. Engelthaler says that's why it's so important to identify the fungus early so approved FDA medications like amphotericin B and posaconazole can be administered quickly.

Engelthaler says it takes a disaster like the tornado event in Joplin, Mo. to understand there are pathogens out there that aren't seen on a regular basis. The fungus, which is normally associated with warm climates, had probably been in the area for a long time, he explained. TGen's DNA sequencing identified Apophysomyces in all 13 of the Joplin cases. The study highlights the importance of rapidly identifying the exact cause of skin infections that can occur after a natural disaster from trauma.

Climatologists warn that severe weather outbreaks are only going to get worse with global warming, making the finding important to protect public health. Apophysomyces trapeziformis is a mold that belongs to a group of fungi called Mucoromycotina. The mold grows in compost piles, leaves and rotten wood.

December 5, 2012

Guarro J, Chander J, Alvarez E, Stchigel AM, Robin K, Dalal U, et al. Apophysomyces variabilis infections in humans [letter]. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2011 Jan [date cited]. http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1701.101139
DOI: 10.3201/eid1701.101139

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