GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s no real reason to fear, but residents across the Upper Peninsula may want to lay off HBO’s “The Last of Us” for a while.
Public Health of Delta & Menominee Counties has confirmed an outbreak of blastomycosis that appears to be connected to an Escanaba paper mill.
As of Friday, 35 cases have been confirmed and nine more are awaiting test results. Each infected person works at the Billerud Paper Mill. The health department, the mill and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are working together on the investigation to try and find the approximate timeframe of when the exposure occurred and how to protect others.
Just like the plotline to HBO’s hit show, blastomycosis is a rare fungal disease. Unlike the show, the disease does not turn people into cannibalistic zombies.
Blastomycosis grows in moist soil and decomposing matter. People are infected by directly breathing in the fungal spores, which means it cannot spread from person to person or between animals.
“The health and safety of our Escanaba employees has been and continues to be our first priority,” Billerud Paper Mill Operations Vice President Brian Peterson said in a statement. “Though no causal link to our mill has been confirmed, we are taking this matter very seriously and have taken a number of proactive steps.”
Not everyone who breathes in the spores will develop an infection, but those that do will likely deal with a fever and a cough, night sweats, muscle and joint pain, chest pains or extreme fatigue. Blastomycosis infections are typically treated with an antifungal medication. PHDM says the treatments are most effective when started as soon as possible.
PHDM stressed that infections are not common, but there are several steps people can take to keep themselves safe.
“While the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection, it should be noted that these infections are exceedingly rare. Most people who breathe in blastomycosis will not get sick,” Michael Snyder, Health Officer of PHDM, said in a statement.
The best ways to avoid an infection is to take precautions when near moist soil, disturbed soil or are participating in activities in heavily wooded areas.
PHDM recommends wearing personal protective equipment, like face masks, eye protection and gloves when “engaging in higher risk activities.” It also recommends waiting to move leaf litter until it is dry and to avoid moving or disturbing soil on windy days.