Published On: Fri, May 24th, 2013

The possible aftermath of the Oklahoma tornados: the risk of fungal infections

In the aftermath of the tornados that ripped through parts of Oklahoma killing dozens, including children, is the risk of serious, potentially fatal, deep skin fungal infections.

In a scene reminiscient of Joplin, MO, nearly two years ago to the day, where more than 150 were killed,the aftermath included serious zygomycetes infections in storm survivors.


Microscopy of Apophysomyces, one of the causative agents of mucormycosis. Image/CDC

Microscopy of Apophysomyces, one of the causative agents of mucormycosis.

NBC News reports that physicians should be aware of the potential for these infections. “We want to encourage clinicians to be aware that these infections can happen,” said Dr. Benjamin Park, chief epidemiologist with the mycotic diseases branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the Joplin outbreak, there were 13 documented cases of necrotizing cutaneous mucormycosis.

All the victims received multiple injuries–extensive and traumatic wounds. Unfortunately, during a disaster, skin injuries are something that comes with the territory. When residents are scrambling to protect themselves during extraordinarily stressful and frightening circumstances, there is no way to avoid getting a little dirt in your wounds, much less getting it out once it’s in there.

Dr. Uwe Schmidt, an infectious disease specialist at Freeman Health System in Joplin, described the situation two years ago in Joplin:

A week after the tornado, patients began arriving with fungal infections.

“We could visibly see mold in the wounds,” Schmidt said. “It rapidly spread. The tissue dies off and becomes black. It doesn’t have any circulation. It has to be removed.”

Schmidt said the infection is sometimes seen in survivors of mass trauma such as the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

“This fungus invades the underlying tissue and actually invades the underlying blood vessels and cuts off the circulation to the skin,” he said. “It’s very invasive.”

As NBC Vitals Senior Writer, JoNel Aleccia points out, it’s not yet clear whether any fungal infections are suspected in the victims of this week’s disaster.

However, as  Dr. Gary Wells, medical director for the Norman Regional Health System emergency department said , “It is something you keep in the back of your mind.”

Zygomycosis, or mucormycosis, is an acute fungal infection from a number of genera of molds, Rhizopus species being the most frequently encountered.

Infections with these fungi typically cause disease that is rapidly progressive, destructive and associated with a high fatality rate of 50% of higher.

It is most prevalent in those with a weakened immune system or other debilitating disease like diabetes, but as what is being seen in Joplin, it can also infect those that are healthy but badly injured.

These fungi have an affinity for blood vessels, and cause thrombosis, infarction and tissue necrosis.

It is not communicable from person-to-person.

Diagnosis of zygomycosis is usually made through microscopic examination and a fungal culture.

An expert on fungal infections from the CDC, Dr. Benjamin Park urged anyone injured in the tornado who has skin lesions or wounds that aren’t healing to seek medical attention. “It’s very important for people … to seek medical attention immediately,” Park said.

The CDC advises people involved with the cleanup in Oklahoma, as in Joplin two years earlier, to avoid  cutaneous (skin) mucormycosis:

  • If you are handling debris, wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, pants, and gloves.
  • See your health care provider if you are concerned about cuts, scrapes, or other skin injuries.

Tornado Survivors Battle Deadly Fungus in Joplin, Missouri

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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  1. Allen Dawson says:

    Thank you for sharing. This information is on infected areas with natural disasters that led to many diseases.

  2. Post-tornado peril: Victims could face deadly fungal infections | lara (author-blogger) says:

    […] The possible aftermath of the Oklahoma tornados: the risk of fungal infections (theglobaldispatch.com) […]

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