"In real time, it's hard to know what you're treating," Park said. So doctors might preemptively start a patient on antibiotics (which fight bacteria) or antifungal drugs before test results are in.
The Missouri outbreak underscores the importance of early testing to get patients the right treatment, Park said.
"We want to raise awareness of this [infection] as a possibility after natural disasters," he added.
Even though mucormycosis-causing fungi are ubiquitous, they rarely cause problems for people, said Dr. Thomas Patterson, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Most often, the infection strikes people whose immune systems are compromised, from cancer or drugs used after an organ transplant, for example. And those are typically respiratory infections from inhaled mold spores.
Still, the risk of mucormycosis in healthy people with traumatic injuries has been recognized, noted Patterson, who also is a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. And he agreed on the importance of early recognition.
"These infections are very difficult to treat," Patterson said.
But he also noted that for most people injured in a natural disaster, any infections will be bacterial -- though those, of course, also can become serious.
"It's important to remember that in these [Joplin] cases, we're talking about people who had extensive injuries," Patterson said.
And because of that, preventing severe injuries during natural disasters should help prevent mucormycosis cases, according to the CDC.
The public can take some steps of its own, Park said. If you live in a tornado-prone area, for example, you can make sure you have a "safe room" or some type of emergency shelter you can get to quickly. You should also be tuned in to your local area's tornado warning system.
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