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CDC officials are in Joplin investigating fungal infections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2011 - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that it had found 15 cases of the potentially fatal deep skin fungal infection among those injured or killed during last month's tornado in Joplin. It said five of those cases involved people who had died. But the agency did not indicate the extent to which it thought the fungus contributed to those deaths.

"What I can share with you is that there are 15 cases overall of people having this particular fungus," said CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell. "We're still counting, still waiting on lab results of cases under investigation. The number could change as the investigation continues."

What began as a local investigation was recently transferred to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Lab results were being sent to the CDC facilities in Atlanta. The state reported last week that the CDC had sent experts to Joplin and had taken charge of the inquiry. But the CDC's Russell says nothing unusual should be implied by that development.

She said the CDC routinely works with state health agencies in outbreaks like the one in Joplin. "We may take a role in directing or providing support for an investigation, but it should never be perceived that we're taking over the state's function. We're a non-regulatory agency."

The state's announcement that the CDC was taking the lead meant, "We have a team on the ground, we're taking the samples and conducting the testing of samples. That's just a capacity question."

The capacity issue, she said, referred to the CDC's capabilities.

"We have the database and technical materials. I can't say exactly what Missouri has or does not have. But we have a greater capacity in situations like this when something is unusual."

The new numbers might represent a slight uptick in suspected cases. The most recent update from state officials had shown 10 suspected cases.

The infection in Joplin is known as zygomycosis. Jacqueline Lapine, spokeswoman for the state health department, said the fungi that cause the infection are commonly found in soil and decaying wood.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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