ESCANABA, Mich. (WZMQ) – State and national organizations are assisting Public Health Delta County with the investigation of rising blastomycosis cases.
As of April 27, 104 cases of blastomycosis have been linked to the Billerud paper mill.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and CDC experts continue to search for the cause of the outbreak.
MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian says while the fungal infection is typically found in decomposing organic matter in this region, the large number of cases is unusual.
“That is more than we would typically see in the entire state in a normal year,” said Dr. Bagdasarian. “This is something that warrants specific investigation to look at, was there contaminated material? Was there something that made a greater risk of people breathing in contaminated material?”
While the mill is idled, Billerud is conducting a full cleaning, including the ductwork.
“I think that they are being very cautious in terms of protecting the safety of their employees,” Dr. Bagdasarian said.
A state laboratory is studying the genetic material of the fungus that causes blastomycosis, which Dr. Bagdasarian says has not been studied to the extent the bacterial material has been studied.
“It means looking at the entire genomic sequence of this organism and finding clues as to potentially how this spread,” Dr. Bagdasarian explained. “Are all of these organisms genetically related? Were there two different genetic lineages? They’re looking into what we call epidemiologic genomics.”
Anyone linked to the mill is being evaluated and interviewed by officials. Dr. Bagdasarian says those who are not linked to the mill should not be overly concerned about becoming infected.
“This is not a situation where people who do not have exposure to that particular plant should be unnecessarily fearful,” she said. “This is an organism that we do see in this part of the world, and most of the time people don’t get infected. They don’t have serious outcomes after they have been exposed in routine ways. This was an unusual occurrence.”
Dr. Bagdasarian advises anyone experiencing potential blastomycosis symptoms–including fever, night sweats, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and weight loss–to contact their physician.