An outbreak of a rare fungal disease has hit workers at a paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan. Along with 19 confirmed cases, health authorities saw that at least 74 people have a “probable case” after displaying symptoms of the disease earlier this year.
Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties (PHDM) were first notified about “atypical pneumonia infections” among numerous employees at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill on February 28, although cases had been popping up since January.
Just as they first suspected, lab tests later showed the people were sick with blastomycosis, a disease of the lungs caused by the fungus Blastomyces dermatitidis.
Most cases of the infection are asymptomatic, but people with symptoms tend to experience coughing up blood, fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, night sweats, tiredness, achiness, and weight loss. As with many infections, people with a weakened immune system are at the most risk.
“While the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection, it should be noted that these infections are exceedingly rare. Most people who breathe in blastomycosis will not get sick,” Michael Snyder, Health Officer of PHDM said in a statement published on March 9.
It can be a long journey to treat the infection, though. Most people with blastomycosis will need treatment with prescription antifungal medication, which can last for six months to one year, according to the CDC.
The source of the outbreak is currently unknown, although there are a number of ways the infection could have taken root among people linked to the paper mill. The infection is caught by inhaling the spores of the fungus, which is typically found in moist soil and in decomposing matter, such as rotting leaves or wood.
“Although the source of the infection has not been established, we continue to take this matter very seriously and are following recommendations from health and government officials and implementing numerous, proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our employees, contractors and visitors,” Brian Peterson, Operations Vice President at Billerud Escanaba Mill, said in a statement released April 7.
When you think of unlikely fungal infections, your mind might wander towards The Last of Us. While a global pandemic of mind-controlling Ophiocordyceps is unlikely, it is clear that fungal infections are becoming an increasing burden on healthcare systems around the world.
One of the main concerns is the rise of “superfungi” that have grown resistant to antifungal drugs, much like how bacteria become antibiotic resistant. Recent years have seen these kinds of drug-resistant fungal infections emerge around the world, including in the US.
There is also the very real possibility that rising temperatures from climate change will make natural environments more hospitable for pathogenic fungi, potentially raising the risk of infections.