More than 90 employees at an Upper Peninsula paper mill in Michigan are believed infected with a fungus found in soil and decaying wood, with about a dozen requiring hospitalization.
Investigation of a blastomycosis outbreak at the Billerud paper mill in Escanaba is ongoing and involves local, state, and federal health and occupational safety officials. The mill employs about 900 people.
“I’ve been at the paper mill for about 11 years, and we have never seen anything like this,” said Gerald Kell, president of the United Steel Workers Local 21 union that represents about 670 of the mill’s employees.
A blastomycosis outbreak affecting large numbers of people is highly unusual, as the fungal disease is not typically transferred from person to person.
It indicates that instead, scores of employees were infected from the same materials containing the blastomyces fungal spores, which exist in the environment in the eastern U.S. and parts of Canada.
Here’s what we know.
What the fungus does inside the human body
People contract blastomycosis after breathing in microscopic fungal spores from the air, often after participating in activities that disturb the soil, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
Once inside the lungs, the body’s warmth and moisture can transform the spores into yeast that can stay in the lungs or be transferred through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the skin, bones, joints, organs, brain and spinal cord.
States that track blastomycosis report only about one or two cases per 100,000 population a year. Deaths from the disease are similarly rare, with the CDC finding 1,216 blastomycosis-related deaths occurred in the U.S. from 1990 to 2010.
Some 19 cases of blastomycosis were confirmed in Billerud employees through biopsies and/or laboratory cultures, with another 74 workers testing as probable cases — having symptoms of blastomycosis with a positive antigen or antibody test from urine or saliva, according to a news release Friday from the local health department.
“Roughly a dozen” employees have been hospitalized “to one degree or another” as a result of the disease, including at least one employee who has required hospitalization for weeks, Kell said.
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