When Soil Hits the Air
|Photograph taken by tanakawho 2007; from Flikr
There are organisms that are indigenous to soil, and sometimes they get kicked up by Mother Nature into the air or water and enter humans, and sometimes they cause disease.
|Mucormycosis Spore; Photograph from CDC
Sadly, at least three people have died from invasive mucormycosis [a fungal disease] in Joplin, MO, following the massive tornado in May. Not all the information is available about how they contracted it, but skin trauma or inhalation are the most likely mechanisms.
Mucormycosis is very rare and epidemics are even more rare since it is not contagious. It is mainly found in soil, from decomposing vegetation, so an event that would literally throw it up into the air could, and potentially has, lead to infections with the organism.
After the Northridge earthquake of 1994 there was an increased incidence of cases of valley fever or coccidiodomycosis. This was due to the increased amount of fungal spores that entered the air and were inhaled. Primarily the already immunocompromised became infected, but infection in immunocompetent people did result as well.
This past winter [for North Americans] Australia's Queensland state had an increase in melioidiosis [a bacterial infection] due to flooding. Again, this organism is indigenous to their soil, and it was put where it ought not be.
A past epidemic of mucormycosis did not involved Mother Nature. In the 1970's contaminated elastic bandages lead to cutaneous mucormycosis. If not treated quickly with an intravenous antifungal [like amphotericin B] and surgical debridement, it can rapidly spread and cause more severe infection or death.
I truly hope that this is the last bad offering of Mother Nature to the people of Joplin, MO for a very long time.