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One death and almost 100 cases of rare fungal infection linked to Michigan paper mill, health officials say


By Katherine Dillinger and John Bonifield, CNN

Ninety-seven confirmed or probable cases of blastomycosis have been identified in Michigan’s Delta and Menominee counties, according to the local health department, and they are believed to be associated with a paper mill in the town of Escanaba.

One death has been associated with the outbreak: A contractor who worked at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill until recently passing away due to blastomycosis.

“We were saddened to hear this news. Our heartfelt sympathies and prayers go out to the family, friends and co-workers who have lost their loved one,” county health officer Michael Snyder said in a news release.

“Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by this news,” Brian Peterson, Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill’s vice president of operations, said. “Anyone who works at our facility is part of our team, and we are keeping this individual, their family, coworkers and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts.”

Blastomycosis is caused by a fungus, Blastomyces, that lives in the environment, especially in moist soil and decomposing matter like wood or leaves, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is predominantly found in the Midwest and the South, particularly around the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes.

There are only one or two cases per 100,000 people each year in states where blastomycosis is a reportable condition, according to the CDC. One analysis found 1,216 deaths related to the illness from 1990 to 2010.

People can breathe in these microscopic fungal spores, and although most of them won’t get sick, some will develop symptoms like a fever or cough between three weeks and three months later, the CDC says. Other symptoms may include chest pain, trouble breathing, night sweats, fatigue, weight loss, and muscle or joint pain, according to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties. In rare cases, the infection can spread outside the lungs to places like the skin, bones, brain and spinal cord.

Blastomycosis does not spread from person to person. It’s treated with antifungal medication that must be taken for a period ranging from six months to a year, depending on the severity of the illness and the person’s overall health.

Twenty-one of the cases linked to the mill have been confirmed by culture or microscope, and the other 76 are probable, meaning the person had symptoms of blastomycosis and a positive antigen or antibody test, the health department said. Twelve people have been hospitalized. All of the cases are either employees, contractors or visitors of the mill, officials said.

“Although the source of the infection has not been established, we continue to take this matter very seriously and are following recommendations from health and government officials and implementing numerous, proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our employees, contractors and visitors,” Peterson said in a statement from the health department.

On Thursday, the company announced the “temporary idling” of the Escanaba mill for additional cleaning.

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