Rare fungal infection plaguing Michigan paper mill workers: 6 notes

A rare fungal infection outbreak at a Michigan paper mill infected more than 90 workers and has now left one dead. Blastomycosis, which typically exists as mold in soil or decaying wood, usually results in only one to two cases a year per 100,000 people — so the high case numbers are causing health officials to pay close attention.

According to reports, of the individuals infected at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill, located in Michigan's Delta County, 12 of the infected individuals have required hospitalization.  

Blastomycosis is a reportable disease in certain states including Michigan, according to the CDC and "although most cases of blastomycosis are not associated with outbreaks, blastomycosis outbreaks linked to a common source do occasionally occur." 

Six facts about the rare fungal disease:

  1. Between 1990 and 2010, 1,216 blastomycosis-related deaths have occurred in the U.S.

  2. When an outbreak does occur, often it is due to "activities that disrupt soil such as construction or excavation, or recreational activities near lakes or rivers such as hunting, fishing or camping."

  3. Infections from the fungus do not "spread between people or between people and animals through the air," except for in extremely rare cases.

  4. The fungus is most commonly found in midwestern, south-central, and southeastern states.

  5. Testing for the fungus even in known areas of occurrence is often "unreliable as a predictor of Blastomycosis."

  6. According to the CDC "most people who breathe in the spores don’t get sick, some people will develop symptoms like fever and cough," but in certain cases it can become severe. 

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