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What is blastomycosis the fungal infection that killed a Michigan man?

Posted at 5:41 PM, Feb 08, 2024

(WXYZ) — In today’s Health Alert, a Michigan man has passed away after battling a rare fungal disease. Ian Pritchard had developed blastomycosis, an infection caused by a local fungus. He died just days before his 30th birthday.

This is very sad news, and I give my sincere condolences to Ian’s family and friends.

Ian Pritchard was a chef in Harbor Springs. He spent 11 weeks fighting the infection, first in Petoskey and then at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The infection had unfortunately ravaged his lungs beyond repair – that’s according to a post on the family’s GoFundMe page.

Now, a blastomycosis infection is caused by a fungus called blastomyces. This fungus lives in the environment and is most often found in moist soil and decomposing organic matter like rotting wood and leaves. When the soil or organic matter is disturbed, tiny spores are released. If these spores are breathed in, they enter the lungs and can turn into yeast. This yeast might stay in the lungs or travel through the blood to places like the skin, bones, joints, organs, and the central nervous system.

As for tragic outcomes, according to two studies examining blastomycosis cases, approximately 8–9% of individuals with the infection passed away. Having said that, the overall mortality rate is likely lower as the studies did not include patients who had less severe infections.

The fungus predominantly resides in the Midwestern, south-central, and southeastern states. It’s often found in regions around the Great Lakes.

Overall, blastomycosis is not very common. In places where blastomycosis is reported, there usually are only 1 or 2 cases per 100,000 people each year. However, there was an outbreak last year at the Billerud Paper Mill in Escanaba, Michigan, with over 100 cases reported and one death.

On a positive note, most people who breathe in the spores don’t get sick. And only about half of those infected develop symptoms like:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches or joint pain
  • Chest, rib, or back pain

Unfortunately for some people - especially those with weakened immune systems - the infection can get serious. There is treatment, most people infected will need antifungal medication. A course of treatment can last six months to a year, depending on how severe the infection is and the strength of your immune system.
When it comes to prevention, there's no vaccine. People at risk of a severe infection should consider avoiding activities that stir up soil in places where Blastomyces is commonly found.

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