WEDNESDAY, Dec. 5 (HealthDay News) -- After a natural disaster, doctors should be on the lookout for outbreaks of a rare but deadly "flesh-eating" fungal infection, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.
That's the lesson, the agency said, from 13 cases of mucormycosis skin infections that struck victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornado last year.
The May 2011 tornado was one of the deadliest in U.S. history, killing almost 160 people and injuring more than 1,000. In the aftermath, doctors found that some victims with serious injuries were developing severe infections that ate away at the skin and underlying soft tissue.
It turned out to be mucormycosis, a fungal infection caused by a group of molds found in soil and decaying matter, such as fallen leaves and rotting wood. The fungus can attack various parts of the body, but skin infections occur when the fungus contaminates a wound.
The cluster of 13 cases in Joplin was a very large one, the CDC reported in the Dec. 6 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
"A typical hospital might normally see one case in a year," said senior researcher Dr. Benjamin Park, a medical officer at the CDC's mycotic diseases branch.
All 13 victims, five of whom died, had been in the most severely storm-damaged areas of Joplin. They'd suffered multiple wounds -- including penetrating wounds in five people -- and most had bone fractures.
Those injuries were also often contaminated with debris from the storm, including gravel, wood and soil.
"Particulate matter was basically blown into them by the tornado," Park explained.
All of the patients had surgery to remove the infected, dead tissue, along with antifungal drugs -- though six initially got drugs that are not active against mucormycosis-causing fungi. It's not clear, the CDC team said, whether that made a d
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