DELTA COUNTY, Mich. (WZMQ) – As blastomycosis cases rise among paper mill workers in Delta County, many are wondering what the dangers of the infection are.
According to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties, blastomycosis is a fungal infection that forms in spores in wet areas. Low temperatures are necessary for the fungus to form, so it is most common between December and February. The infection is contracted by breathing in aerosols of the fungus.
“When it goes into the human body, it goes into the yeast form,” said medical director Dr. Robert Yin. “You can actually see characteristic budding yeast in human tissue when people are infected.”
Dr. Yin says despite the recent case numbers, it is unusual to see blastomycosis in Delta County. From 2017 – 2021, only three cases were recorded in the county. Seven cases were recorded during that time in Menominee County.
The infection is most commonly found in damp soil and rotten wood and leaves. Dr. Yin says that is why blastomycosis is often seen first in dogs.
“Dogs spend a lot of time with their noses close to the ground, sniffing and breathing in the soil,” he said. “If dogs are sick, that can be an indicator that something’s afoot.”
In humans, Dr. Yin says approximately 50% of cases are mild, and many of those are asymptomatic.
“It might be so mild that they don’t even notice it,” he said. “Their body’s immune system gears up and fights it, and maybe they perceive it as a slight cold or something.”
In more serious cases, the most common symptoms are chest discomfort, coughing, shortness of breath, fever, tiredness, and loss of appetite. Those who are immunosuppressed–including people who are diabetic, obese, or pregnant–are at high risk of more serious symptoms.
“There can be involvement of the neurological system–the brain, the spinal cord,” said Dr. Yin. “You can have involvement of the urinary system; you can have skin involvement with skin rash.”
In the most severe cases, blastomycosis can even cause death.
Dr. Yin says patients with mild to moderate symptoms are treated with Itraconazole. Patients with more serious symptoms are treated with Amphotericin B.
There is no vaccine for the infection, so Dr. Yin urges those susceptible to be cautious.
“They should avoid doing excavations of dirt, doing the leaf raking, working around piles of potentially rotten wood,” Dr. Yin said.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of blastomycosis is urged to contact their medical provider as quickly as possible.
“The health department has put out some alerts to the medical practitioners in the county as well as the surrounding counties,” said Dr. Yin. “They’re keeping this on top of mind for people who are coming in with cases of what we call atypical pneumonia.”
As of March 31, Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties reports 19 confirmed blastomycosis cases and 62 probable cases. The investigation of blastomycosis cases among Billerud Paper Mill workers is still under investigation.