After Joplin Twister, A Mystery Illness

By Wally Kennedy

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) – When he was asked whether he wanted to help tow some of the thousands of vehicles that were destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin, Mike Forest jumped at the chance.

“The day after the tornado, he was there,” said his wife, Dina, of Olathe, Kan. “It was the third week he was there that it happened.”

Forest awoke one morning to a blood-stained pillow from a nosebleed he did not know had happened. His shins were covered with blisters up to his knees. He had an excruciating headache.

He is now in the Shawnee Mission Medical Center in the Kansas City area, where doctors are trying to find out why he became ill and why he is still ill. His most recent tests include a spinal tap to determine whether he was exposed to something toxic.

“He’s very sick. He describes it as someone taking a spoon and raking his bones. He has a headache that just disables him,” said his wife in a recent telephone interview. “No one has a clue. If we don’t get some answers here, we’re going to the Mayo Clinic next. He can’t go on like this.”

Now, more than 16 months after the tornado and a raft of inconclusive medical tests, it has become the curious case of Mike Forest.

For months after the storm, local health officials looked for emerging diseases that could be attributed to the tornado.

Early on, health care providers treating tornado victims identified a rare fungus that was sickening people.

The disease had been reported after previous natural disasters, including the tsunami in Japan, but Joplin would become the first known cluster occurring after a tornado, according to a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mucormycosis is a rare infection caused by a fungus that is typically found in soil, decaying wood and other organic matter. All of the victims had wounds in which wood splinters were a factor.

A CDC team that came to Joplin identified 18 suspected cases of the fungal infection, of which 13 were confirmed. Five deaths were linked to the fungus. None of the cases involved workers in the tornado zone.

Because of those cases, local health officials were watching closely for emerging diseases.

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