Frightening maps show the extent of deadly fungal diseases across the United States
By Cassidy Morrison, chief health correspondent for Dailymail.Com
13:55 10 February 2024, updated 14:24 10 February 2024
- Infectious fungi are becoming more prevalent as the climate warms
- People with fungal infections of the lungs usually initially appear to have pneumonia
- Read more: Michigan man, 29, dies after contracting fatal fungal infection
The death of a Michigan chef from a fungal infection has highlighted a silent epidemic that has been growing in America for years.
Four deadly strains in particular have become more common in the past few decades, infecting thousands of people now compared to just dozens in the early 2000s.
DailyMail.com revealed the latest victim of the outbreak earlier this week was 29-year-old Ian Pritchard, whose lungs were ‘destroyed’ by blastomycosis – a microscopic yeast that spreads when people inhale its spores.
The fungus lurks in the damp soil and rotting wood of the upper Midwest, but a warming global climate has allowed it to thrive on the East Coast as well.
Meanwhile, in the West, valley fever is sickening more people than ever before, with cases in California tripling from 2014 to 2018 and from 2018 to 2022.
Since Ian Pritchard’s death was reported, DailyMail.com has heard from many other people whose loved ones or themselves have fallen victim to a potentially fatal fungal infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health Organization, have intensified alarms in recent years about fungal pathogens that can evade medications.
Climate change combined with international travel makes the spread of dangerous pathogens, including fungal strains, more likely.
An estimated 7,199 deaths from fungal diseases occurred in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is higher than the total of 5,922 deaths in the previous year, and 4,833 deaths in the year before that.
Ian Pritchard’s case of blastomycosis was one of the first reported in the US in 2024. His cousin, Lorelei Walker, detailed the extent of her loss to DailyMail.com. Ian was the second member of her family to be torn apart by this disease.
She told DailyMail.com: “Ian is the second in my family to succumb to this disease. If I had not suffered from this disease with my husband, I would never have known what this disease is and the damage it does – not only to the person fighting it but also to the families and friends who watch it.”
The fungus lurks in damp soil, leaves and rotting wood, releasing spores into the air when disturbed, which can become embedded in tissue and cause infection. For example, the same fungus that causes blastomycosis turns into a type of yeast that multiplies in the lungs and causes infection.
Mrs Walker does not know to this day how her husband Ira – who had underlying kidney disease – became infected in June 2020. At the height of the global Covid pandemic, Ira was transported from a dialysis session in an ambulance to hospital in June 2020. Weeks after Difficulty breathing, fatigue and muscle pain.
An X-ray revealed opaque masses in his lungs, indicating to doctors that he had pneumonia, although his condition was not helped by standard treatment for the lung infection.
He was admitted to hospital, and subsequent tests confirmed blastomycosis.
Diagnosis of blastomycosis requires a chest X-ray or CT scan to detect lung masses or cavities. Doctors usually also take fluid or tissue samples to test for the presence of yeast cells that blastomyces turn into when they invade the lungs.
Ira languished in hospital for a month after doctors surgically performed a tracheostomy in his neck, before transferring him to a specialist facility for a higher level of care. While the hope was that he would regain his lost strength and muscle mass, his condition worsened.
She told the Daily Mail: “Instead of regaining his strength, he became weaker. Every time he called the hospital, there was news of another setback.
“At the end of September, I received a phone call from his sister telling me that he had made the decision to return home to receive hospice care.
“I put the phone to his ear so I could talk to him to confirm. A few days later, I spoke with his case manager and made arrangements for him to go home.
Studies have shown that an ever-warming climate creates exceptionally hospitable environments for many of the nastiest fungal species, and can even help them mutate in a way that cannot be treated with standard drugs.
The fungus that causes valley fever, Coccidioides, thrives in hot, ever-dryer desert environments. Another species, Histoplasma, which causes histoplasmosis, thrives in the moist soil on the East Coast, which receives more rain over the years.
With the changing environment allowing fungi to continually grow and adapt, there is concern that the current arsenal of antifungal treatments will fail, leaving healthcare workers grappling with an escalating crisis of untreatable pathogens.
Neither Ms. Walker nor the Pritchards could say where their loved one was exposed, but it could have been anywhere outdoors, since Blastomyces thrives in moist soil and humid environments.
The Midwest is getting warmer, and storms are becoming more intense. Annual rainfall has increased by up to 20 percent in some areas of the region since 1900.
Average winter temperatures in the United States have risen by nearly three degrees, and spring temperatures have risen by about two degrees. With a milder climate comes a longer growing season for fungi, allowing them to thrive for longer periods and reproduce on a larger scale.
Fungi are also increasingly able to migrate to new environments that were inhospitable decades ago. Vermont, not a state where blastomycetes are considered endemic, has become the fungi’s newest home.
Earlier this year, Vermont health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combed insurance claims records to find cases of blastomycosis, which the state is not required to report.
They revealed 114 residents who had been infected. Of those 114 diagnoses, 30 had one or more hospitalizations for blastomycosis, and four died from the infection.
Massachusetts does not have to report cases of blastomycosis to the federal government either. There, 60-year-old Darcy Coderre became violently ill with what her doctors originally concluded was pneumonia.
They also thought the mark on her lung was cancer when she first presented to doctors in 2016. It was only after performing a biopsy that doctors realized they were actually looking at a case of blastomycosis.
“My doctor was kind of shocked,” she said. He said he had never seen a case of that in Massachusetts.
We tried to find out where she got it from and we couldn’t figure it out. I garden, so we thought it might be from the soil. I hike, but I pretty much stay on the trails.
The antifungal medications worked, and she recovered, but she still has two scars on her lungs from the infection. She now also has asthma, which she believes is a lingering effect of her disease.
There are other nasty fungi on the rise, but their connections to climate change are more ambiguous. Instead, the Candida auris strain is more associated with hospital settings where it can spread quickly, especially among residents of long-term care facilities or among people with internal devices — such as catheters, tracheostomies, or wound drains — or on ventilators. Mechanical industrial.
Candida auris is an acute global health concern and is increasingly common in the United States with each passing year.
Federal government tracking shows about 60 infections in the United States from 2013 through 2016, but there were more than 2,300 cases in 2022 alone.
Antifungal medications may also be ineffective. Some types of C. auris infections are resistant to all three types of antifungal medications: azoles, echinocandins, and amphotericin B. H. auris infection is the first line of treatment for treating H. auris infection.
Multidrug-resistant C auris strains have become more common in recent years.
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