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Survivors of devastating US tornado facing new threat: a rare and deadly fungus

The unusually aggressive infection is very rare but can prove fatal and is believed to have been a factor in the deaths of three people in Joplin, Missouri.

Locals watch as a tractor pulls down what's left of one of their homes in Joplin, Missouri, late last month.
Locals watch as a tractor pulls down what's left of one of their homes in Joplin, Missouri, late last month.
Image: Charlie Riedel/AP/Press Association Images

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Joplin tornado in the US state of Missouri, some people who were injured in the storm developed a rare and sometimes fatal fungal infection that’s so aggressive, it turned their tissue black and caused mould to grow inside their wounds.

Scientists say the unusually aggressive infection occurs when dirt or vegetation becomes embedded under the skin. In some cases, injuries that were stitched up had to be reopened to clean out the contamination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said yesterday that it is conducting tests to help investigate the infections, which are so uncommon that even the nation’s largest hospitals might see only one or two cases a year.

“To my knowledge, a cluster like this has not been reported before,” said Dr Benjamin Park, head of the CDC team that investigates fungal diseases. “This is a very rare fungus. And for people who do get the disease, it can be extremely severe.”

Three tornado survivors who were hospitalised with the infection have died, but authorities said it was unclear what role the fungus played in their deaths because they had a host of serious ailments.

The infection develops in two ways: when the fungal spores are inhaled or when a tree branch or other object carrying the fungus pierces the flesh. If diagnosed in time, the infection can be treated with intravenous medications and surgical removal of affected tissue.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services received reports of eight suspected deep-skin fungal infections among survivors of the 22 May twister, which was the nation’s deadliest single tornado in more than six decades. All of the patients suffered multiple injuries.

Also Friday, officials raised the death toll from the twister to 151, including the three people who had the fungus.

- AP

Read: Tornado strikes Missouri with ‘apocalyptic force’ >

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