Flesh-eating fungal infection can follow natural disasters, study finds

December 6, 2012 by Amy Norton, Healthday Reporter
Flesh-eating fungal infection can follow natural disasters, study finds
Five people died from mucormycosis after 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado.

(HealthDay)—After a natural disaster, doctors should be on the lookout for outbreaks of a rare but deadly "flesh-eating" fungal infection, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.

That's the lesson, the agency said, from 13 cases of mucormycosis skin infections that struck victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornado last year.

The May 2011 tornado was one of the deadliest in U.S. history, killing almost 160 people and injuring more than 1,000. In the aftermath, doctors found that some victims with serious injuries were developing severe infections that ate away at the skin and underlying soft tissue.

It turned out to be mucormycosis, a fungal infection caused by a group of molds found in soil and decaying matter, such as fallen leaves and rotting wood. The fungus can attack various parts of the body, but skin infections occur when the fungus contaminates a wound.

The cluster of 13 cases in Joplin was a very large one, the CDC reported in the Dec. 6 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"A typical hospital might normally see one case in a year," said senior researcher Dr. Benjamin Park, a medical officer at the CDC's mycotic diseases branch.

All 13 victims, five of whom died, had been in the most severely storm-damaged areas of Joplin. They'd suffered multiple wounds—including penetrating wounds in five people—and most had bone fractures.

Those injuries were also often contaminated with debris from the storm, including gravel, wood and soil.

"Particulate matter was basically blown into them by the tornado," Park explained.

All of the patients had surgery to remove the infected, dead tissue, along with antifungal drugs—though six initially got drugs that are not active against mucormycosis-causing fungi. It's not clear, the CDC team said, whether that made a difference in their outcomes.

"In real time, it's hard to know what you're treating," Park said. So doctors might preemptively start a patient on antibiotics (which fight bacteria) or antifungal drugs before test results are in.

The Missouri outbreak underscores the importance of early testing to get patients the right treatment, Park said.

"We want to raise awareness of this [infection] as a possibility after natural disasters," he added.

Even though mucormycosis-causing fungi are ubiquitous, they rarely cause problems for people, said Dr. Thomas Patterson, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Most often, the infection strikes people whose immune systems are compromised, from cancer or drugs used after an organ transplant, for example. And those are typically respiratory infections from inhaled mold spores.

Still, the risk of mucormycosis in healthy people with traumatic injuries has been recognized, noted Patterson, who also is a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. And he agreed on the importance of early recognition.

"These infections are very difficult to treat," Patterson said.

But he also noted that for most people injured in a natural disaster, any infections will be bacterial—though those, of course, also can become serious.

"It's important to remember that in these [Joplin] cases, we're talking about people who had extensive injuries," Patterson said.

And because of that, preventing severe injuries during natural disasters should help prevent mucormycosis cases, according to the CDC.

The public can take some steps of its own, Park said. If you live in a tornado-prone area, for example, you can make sure you have a "safe room" or some type of emergency shelter you can get to quickly. You should also be tuned in to your local area's tornado warning system.

Explore further: Poorer bone health seen in black children with fractures

More information: Learn more about mucormycosis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Full Text

Related Stories

Poorer bone health seen in black children with fractures

August 27, 2012
(HealthDay)—African-American children with forearm fractures are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency and lower bone mineral density than their peers without fractures, according to a study published online Aug. 27 ...

Researchers find cutaneous human papillomavirus infection a risk factor for skin cancer

July 2, 2012
Researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center and colleagues at the University of South Florida, the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, conducted a case ...

Link found between percentage of minority trauma patients in a hospital and increased odds of dying

September 19, 2011
The odds of dying appear to increase for patients treated at hospitals with higher proportions of minority trauma patients, although racial disparities may partly explain differences in outcomes between trauma hospitals, ...

Recommended for you

Creation of synthetic horsepox virus could lead to more effective smallpox vaccine

January 19, 2018
UAlberta researchers created a new synthetic virus that could lead to the development of a more effective vaccine against smallpox. The discovery demonstrates how techniques based on the use of synthetic DNA can be used to ...

Study ends debate over role of steroids in treating septic shock

January 19, 2018
The results from the largest ever study of septic shock could improve treatment for critically ill patients and save health systems worldwide hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

New approach could help curtail hospitalizations due to influenza infection

January 18, 2018
More than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized due to illnesses associated with the seasonal flu during the 2014-15 flu season, according to federal estimates. A radical new approach to vaccine development at UCLA may help ...

Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies

January 18, 2018
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects ...

Certain flu virus mutations may compensate for fitness costs of other mutations

January 18, 2018
Seasonal flu viruses continually undergo mutations that help them evade the human immune system, but some of these mutations can reduce a virus's potency. According to new research published in PLOS Pathogens, certain mutations ...

Study reveals how MRSA infection compromises lymphatic function

January 17, 2018
Infections of the skin or other soft tissues with the hard-to-treat MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria appear to permanently compromise the lymphatic system, which is crucial to immune system function. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.