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Tornado Survivors Battle Deadly Fungus in Joplin, Missouri

Categories: Natural Disasters, Response

 

hospital sign a midst rubble in Joplin, MO

By Molly Gayden

Disaster Strikes

On May 22, 2011, an F5 Tornado ripped through the heart of Joplin, Missouri, a city of more than 50,000 people. Almost 160 people were killed and thousands of lives were completely uprooted. The tornado damaged more than 7,000 buildings, one third of the city. St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Joplin’s main hospital, was directly in the path of the three-quarter mile wide tornado, with almost 200 patients and even more medical staff inside. The physical and psychological damages the city of Joplin sustained are devastating, as was the traumatic injuries inflicted on many of the residents.   

Trying to Heal

When people sustain massive traumatic injuries, it puts so much stress on the body that it becomes difficult to fight off infections. This paves the way for germs—also called pathogens—which can infect humans when the body’s natural defenses are weakened. A pathogen can be any living thing that causes disease, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or even other microbes like amoebas. Cuts, scrapes, burns, and even a splinter can allow pathogens to enter the body through the skin. 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.

micrograph of fungus species found in Joplin, MOUnfortunately, the events that occurred in Joplin created the perfect environment for exposure to these pathogens, and some injured survivors began showing signs of an unusual wound infection. The problem with these infections is that it’s not always everyday microbes that infect a wound. We’ve all heard of staph infections, which can be extremely severe and hard to treat. Because they are the usual suspects for types of wound infection, treatment for those infections usually begins right away. But when an unusual germ infects a wound, it can take days to notice that the standard treatment isn’t working. Then it becomes a mad rush for the medical team to figure out what is causing the infection. It’s not nearly as simple as it sounds; there are thousands of germs that can cause an infection like this and many treatments to be considered. This kind of medical conundrum is worthy of even House M.D. and his diagnostic team. That’s where CDC comes in.

The CDC Mycotic Diseases Branch sent a team to Missouri to help with an investigation of a cluster of serious fungal skin infections that occurred among people injured in the Joplin tornado. I have been fortunate enough to work alongside the CDC Mycotic Diseases Branch during the past few weeks while participating in an internship for my Master of Public Health degree from Tulane University. The investigation team shared with me their experiences from Joplin, including their professional challenges and personal reactions to this disaster.

In the Field

The first people to report the fungus were the doctors who treated multiple patients with similar symptoms, which suggested an unusual fungal infection. Once the local public health authorities and hospitals were notified of this unusual pattern of symptoms, more cases were discovered. When the news of a potential outbreak of fungal infections reached the community, there was a lot of fear and concern, especially for relief workers who worried they might also be at risk. CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch epidemiology team was alerted that further investigation was necessary, and within a day a team was on their way to Missouri. The team included two Epidemic Intelligence Service officers, Drs. Robyn Neblett Fanfair and Sarah Bennett, along with epidemiology fellow Kaitlin Benedict, and medical student Tolulope Adebanjo. They worked in conjunction with other disaster relief and health agencies on the federal, state, and local levels.

Whenever a team goes into the field to investigate an outbreak, they focus on trying to find out how people who got the infection are different from people who didn’t. This involves meticulous review of medical documents, as well as interviews with patients or their families. Reviewing medical records can be especially difficult after a disaster; in many cases the information is hard to find because of the large number of critically injured patients treated during a short period of time.

In the Lab

CDC scientist looking through microscopeWhen a medical team realizes that they have an unusual pathogen on their hands, they may send samples to the laboratories at CDC to help them identify exactly what they’re dealing with. It’s critical to know what type of pathogen is infecting a wound; the type of treatment needed depends on it. Although the laboratory staff at the CDC doesn’t usually set foot in the field, they play an essential role in the investigation. They must work as quickly as possible, with samples that are usually less than ideal in size and quantity, to determine not only what type of pathogens are present but also the species and specific strains.

The local laboratories in Missouri were quickly able to identify the fungal infection as mucormycosis so that the medical teams could begin the correct treatment. When the first samples arrived at the CDC from Joplin, the laboratory team already knew that some of them would contain the fungus that causes mucormycosis, but the type of fungus was not yet confirmed. It was also not initially clear if all of the samples contained the same type of fungus. All of these clues can help the investigation team determine which, if any, of the patients had a common exposure and if any changes in treatment were necessary. Through diligent work, the laboratory team was able to identify the type fungus causing the mucormycosis skin infections, Apophysomyces trapeziformis. This type of fuCDC scientist working in laboratoryngus naturally lives in soil and water around the world and has been known to occasionally cause mucormycosis skin infections after motor vehicle crashes and other disasters. This knowledge was helpful, but epidemiologists are still trying to identify how people were exposed to the fungus.

True Community

Nothing can prepare an investigation team for the emotional interviews with trauma survivors. The team was worried about how people would react to the investigation, especially because they knew they would have to ask survivors to relive the moment when the tornado hit. As difficult as these questions might be, they provide crucial information. Knowing whether a survivor was hit by a tree branch or a two-by-four can help determine if there was a common source of exposure to the fungus.

The investigation team was impressed with the bravery and compassion shown by those who chose to participate in the investigation. Sometimes it’s difficult to find people who are willing to share their traumatic experiences and their sensitive medical information, but everyone the team encountered was ready to do anything asked of them in order to help their community. Without the participation of these inspiring people, it would be impossible to complete the investigation. It was a very emotional and moving experience for all of the team members; many of them say they will always be affected by the stories of devastating losses and the miraculous acts of heroism shared between the members of this community.

“I am genuinely in awe of the generosity, strength, and resilience that the residents of Joplin have demonstrated.”

“[The survivors] grief was so raw and new I didn’t want to be a burden or add to their suffering in any way. However, their strength and desire to help others even in their time of need is a true testament to the strength of the human spirit.”

“I have never seen anything like [the disaster aftermath] before, and I think the images will always be ingrained in my mind. Seeing how the people of Joplin came together to help and uplift each other in light of the destruction that occurred is something I will never forget”

“Every disaster is different, and probably whether you witness one or a hundred, every single one of them is going to leave a lasting impression. I will never, ever forget some of those stories or the devastation that we saw in Joplin.”

What’s Next?

Destroyed Home of Case Patient

Joplin may not have any more pathogens in its environment than any other community; the residents there were certainly unlucky that one of the most deadly tornados in US history barreled right through their backyards and opened the doors to infection. Despite these unfortunate events, the people of Joplin have truly come together and shown how a community can survive a disaster and even begin to rebuild from the wreckage. We will hopefully learn something from this unusual outbreak, so that people will be able to avoid, recognize, and treat these kinds of infections in the future. We won’t be able to prevent every infection, but the more we know about how these exposures happen, and what people unknowingly did to avoid them, the better we will be able to develop new guidelines about disaster preparation, as well as what to do when disaster strikes.

For more information check out the article in the Morbidty and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. August 1, 2011 at 11:48 am ET  -   Ronnie

    For the whole team worked and continue to do so, the least I can do is send them a big welcome and continue to work for the sake of thousands of people.
    Receive congratulations, and GREAT GOD to assist them.
    Success.
    Ronnie

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  2. August 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm ET  -   Anne Christnovich

    Hi Molly,

    Thanks for posting this informative article. I came across it through someone’s link on Twitter.

    I’m an Assistant City Editor at the Columbia Missourian newspaper in Columbia, Mo. We did our best to keep up with the fungal infections in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, but too little was known at that point.

    I’m wondering if you can give me an idea of what the impact of this fungal illness is like currently. Are there still many people being treated for the outbreak, or has it dropped off? Do you know how many people have reported symptoms since the disaster? We’re just keeping tabs on all things Joplin related, and trying to decide if we need to follow up on this issue.

    Thanks for your time,

    Anne Christnovich
    Columbia Missourian
    Assistant City Editor

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  3. August 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm ET  -   Frances-Lois Adewumi

    Thanks for the informative article. I was able to access it because of a colleague in my MPH class who provided us with the link. The people of Joplin clearly demonstrated resilience in their willingness to participate in the survey. I pray they have the strength to continue to build their lives.

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  4. August 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm ET  -   Debbie

    Thanks Molly for your article. I am a mycologist working in the New York area and am writing an article for my lab about the organism or organisms isolated from the victims of this tornado . Were there any other moulds found from the patients’ wounds?
    I wanted to know specifically the names of the fungi involved. Thank you, keep us updated. Knowledge is power…

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  5. August 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm ET  -   Blog Administrator

    Debbie, thank you for reading and for your comment. You can find answers to your questions in the recent Morbidty and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on Joplin

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  6. August 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm ET  -   Dina Forest

    My husband went to Joplin the day after Memorial day to help with the clean up. He became very ill week 3 of being there. He is currantly hospitalized at Olathe Medical Center. He has been to the Emergency room 4 times. We still do not have any answeres to why he is so sick. I am reaching out to anyone who has the same symtoms. He has TERRIBLE headaches, all the joints in his body are hurting. He sleeps for days. First symptoms were flu like feelings, blisters on his legs, bloody nose, headaces, and extreme fatigue. He is confussed sometimes, and we are just looking for some answers.

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  7. August 23, 2011 at 9:54 pm ET  -   Kathy Williams

    Dina,

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your husband. I have just learned about the toronado and effects it has caused and I am very concerned of the unknown cause…

    Please keep us posted on your husband’s recovery.

    Stay strong

    Link to this comment

  8. September 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm ET  -   Thyra Cox

    Hi Molly,

    Has someone tried to contact Dina Forest from the previous post of 9/20? It sounds like the doctors treating her husband are unaware of the fungal outbreak in Joplin. Do you have any data on the impact of this infection on other volunteers, if Mr. Forest does indeed have it? Did the volunteer organizations even warn about the possible exposure hazard? There certainly was no national news coverage about this situation that I can remember. Do you know if anyone is monitoring health problems in out-of-town volunteers and emergency workers since the outbreak started with the residents? Just wondering. Sounds like some cases could easily fall through the cracks after they have left the outbreak area in Joplin and gone home. What a logistical nightmare!

    Good luck.

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  9. December 16, 2011 at 7:22 am ET  -   Damian Campbell

    Nice Post about disaster strikes.

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  10. December 19, 2011 at 6:04 am ET  -   homemade healthy vegan recipes

    Thats some academic read..

    Link to this comment

  11. July 1, 2012 at 11:04 am ET  -   Dina Forest

    This is Dina Forest again: I am desperate for help for my husband. He has been to every doctor and ER there is to see. His symtoms are: Muscle aches that are so painful that we today are heading to the ER once again. The doctors say they cannot find anything yet they have him on so much medication for pain, joint inflamation, headaches, and so on. He has been laying in bed crying since 5 a.m. today. I’m trying to take him back to the ER, but he is so sick of doctors that are just covering up his pain but not giving us any answers. We have 27 medical bills right now. The first one was from his trip to the ER while he was still working there. I have wrote them letters and begged for some help with that bill considering he was there helping the city, but they are turning it over to collections. The sad thing is everytime we watch the news about all the wonderful things happening there, I get so mad! I scream, what about us? My husband just crys, he says he would do it again in a heartbeat if he doesnt die first. He is just giving up. He is now on anti-depresents because he has never been sick a day in his life. He was one of the first people allowed into the hospital in Joplin, yet he remembers so many people walking around in Hazmat suits. That is so alarming to me. Well I’m going up to try and get him into the car and get him to Olathe Medical Center once again. Please notify me with any news or findings with others.

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  12. July 11, 2012 at 8:58 am ET  -   Destinim Chikayoz

    I think this is among the most significant information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But want to remark on some general things, The site style is ideal, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

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  13. September 22, 2012 at 8:34 pm ET  -   SUE MCDONALD

    DINA FOREST
    I DO NOT KNOW YOU I JUST READ YOUR COMMENT ABOUT YOUR HUSBAND I AM PRAYING FOR HIM TO BE OK. PLEASE KEEP ME POSTED OK AND I WILL TELL YOU WHY.
    I have a very dear friend since second grade in ICU we both are now 66, she has been in the hospital for almost a year. first they said she had a sinus infection gave her antibotics sent her home, she had a really bad reaction to them and ended up in the hospital for 8 days they sent her home in about three days her friend took her back to the doctor and they put her back in the hospital.Now this is a woman that has never been in the hosptial only to give birth to her three kids. two have passed away from differant reason one was sids and the other was an accident at work. i’m fixing to tell you about my friend. anyway. that hospital said she had a sinus infection was giving her IV antibotics , then all of a sudden they sent her over to MD Anderson said she had Lymphoma, when she got over there they said no it’s not Lymphoma, it’s A Plactic Anima, pardon my spelling. then they said no its Lukemia and started predisome, Cordisome, and chemo. which of course made her body unable to fight off infections, and all along they said she had a sinus infections

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  14. September 25, 2012 at 10:20 pm ET  -   Darcy

    Hello all, I actually live in Joplin and work for Freeman Hospital, the one that did not get hit by the tornado. Thank you for posting information about this fungus so that people can get educated about it! I am reading this article so that I can become more educated and write a paper about this fungus for my microbiology class. To Dina:Tell the next doctor that you see to try Ambisome if the hospital pharmacy stocks it. It is an IV drug that many of our patients were put on after the tornado that had this fungus. I hope your husband finds answers soon!!!

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