The death toll from the tornado that destroyed much of Joplin has risen to 151, and three of the latest victims suffered from a rare fungal infection that can occur when dirt becomes embedded under the skin, authorities said Friday.
Dr. Uwe Schmidt of the Freeman Health System said his hospital treated five Joplin tornado victims for the infection, known as zygomycosis (zy’-goh-my-KOH’-sihs) although the name has formally changed to mucormycosis.
It is caused by several different fungi that are commonly found in soil and decaying vegetation. Those at highest risk are people with weakened immune systems. The fungus typically invades the sinuses, brain and lungs and generally kills about half its victims. It can produce a variety of symptoms, depending on where the initial infection occurs. Treatment involves surgery to remove tissue that has been killed by the fungus and antifungal medications given intravenously.
At least nine survivors of the tornado have contracted the infections, and a third of them have died — although it is not clear if the fungus is the cause of death — Dr. Schmidt told the Springfield News-Leader.
“These people had multiple traumas, pneumonia, all kinds of problems,” . “It’s difficult to say how much the fungal infections contributed to their demise.”
Because the city’s main hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, lay in the path of this deadliest of tornadoes it was evacuated and some 1,700 patients were treated in makeshift facilities.
Among the tornado survivors, some wounds that were stitched up had to be reopened because they had not been adequately cleaned, Schmidt said.
Overall infection numbers were not available. The health department in Springfield-Greene County, where some patients were treated, declined to release information about patients sickened by the fungus, citing patient privacy concerns.
The Springfield News-Leader reported that the department sent a memo Monday to area health providers warning them to be on the lookout for the infections.