How Climate Change Can Spawn Flesh-Eating Fungi

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Public Domain

Few characters inspire more unease in horror movies than flesh-eating things – be it zombies, mutated parasites, or most unsavory of all, fungi. A flesh-eating fungus, seriously creepy. Yet it was just such a creature, of sorts, that is being blamed for the deaths of five people following the savage tornado that toppled Joplin, Mo. in May of 2011, according to two new studies by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infections were caused by Apophysomyces, a common fungus that resides in soil, wood or water and generally leaves people well enough alone. But when it finds it way into the body, say, through blunt trauma or a puncture wound, say, suffered in a tornado ... it can grow quickly if the proper medical response is not immediately administered.

Apophysomyces infections rapidly ravage the body, quickly closing capillaries, shutting off the blood supply and leaving tissue to rot. Doctors try to get ahead of the fast-acting infection by surgically removing sections of dead, damaged or infected tissue.

All together 13 people were infected with Apophysomyces, which occurred when their injuries were contaminated with debris from the storm, including gravel, wood and soil. The five who died did so within two weeks.

"This is one of the most severe fungal infections that anyone's ever seen," said David Engelthaler, Director of Programs and Operations for TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division.

Meanwhile, a report from the U.S. Global Change and Research Program, the federal research program overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, found that more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could lead to an increase in extreme weather conditions that make tornadoes possible.

"These disasters put us at risk for exposure to organisms that are around us, but don't normally cause disease," Engelthaler said. "There's clearly an entire world out there that we're not seeing on a regular basis. It takes a severe event like this tornado for us to come face-to-face with some of the more dangerous pathogens out there."

Tags: Health | Natural Disasters

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