UW Health: Warns of toxic fungal infection causing severe respiratory illness in Wisconsin

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As people head into the woods for deer hunting season this weekend, there’s a serious respiratory illness to watch out for – and it’s not COVID-19.

Blastomycosis is a dangerous respiratory virus that develops when a person breathes in the airborne spores of Blastomyces dermatitidis.

It can infect humans and animals, including dogs. This poisonous fungus is found in the Great Lakes states and the Mississippi Valley and Ohio River regions, but is only endemic to Wisconsin, especially the northern parts of the state, according to Dr Bruce. Klein, pediatric infectious disease physician, UW Health Kids, professor of pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of blastomycosis in the United States,” Klein said. “The fungus grows in moist, acidic soils, especially along the banks of rivers and streams, among leaves, pine needles and decaying wood.”

Wisconsin’s annual blastomycosis rates range from 10 to 40 cases per 100,000 and are particularly prevalent in upstate counties, while only about 1 or 2 cases per 100,000 are reported annually in other states. where blastomycosis is present, depending on the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.

As flu season intensifies and the COVID-19 virus still infects hundreds of people across the state every day, Wisconsin residents who spend time outdoors should also be aware of this illness. respiratory, especially because it’s treatable, Klein said.

“Some people only experience mild flu-like symptoms such as fever and cough, but others may develop pneumonia, and some may die if the fungus colonizes and overwhelms the lungs if left untreated,” Klein said. . “There is no vaccine to prevent blastomycosis, and symptoms usually appear three weeks to three months after a person breathes in the fungal spores.”

If a person has symptoms, they will need to be seen by a doctor and treated with antifungal medication, according to Klein.

The fungus is hard to avoid because it’s so common in the environment, but people with weakened immune systems might want to avoid activities that involve disturbing the soil in those areas, he said.

Klein has studied blastomycosis for almost 40 years. His early investigations in the 1980s led to Wisconsin becoming the first state in which blastomycosis was designated as a Category 2 reportable disease; a change that greatly facilitated future outbreak monitoring, Klein said.

Work by Klein and his research team on an outbreak in Marathon County in 2009-2010 found that ethnic Hmong people are genetically more susceptible to blastomycosis. Klein’s research team is currently studying a range of genetic factors that may make some people more susceptible to the disease.

“The results of this research can benefit all Wisconsin residents,” said Klein, “Anyone who spends time outdoors, perhaps encountering Blastomyces dermatitidis spores when hiking, canoeing, camping, hunting, or just walking along riverbanks.

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