Man Died of Rare Fungus, Officials Say

By Victoria Rouch Staff Writer

February 27, 2002

 A check of death records by Duplin County health officials has revealed that a man died in May of the same fungal infection that has led to the hospitalization of five other county residents this month.

Duplin County Health Director Scott Harrelson said the 45-year-old man lived between Kenansville and Warsaw.

The five most recent cases occurred in four students who attended Warsaw's James Kenan High School as well as in an 81-year-old man who lives near the school.

All suffered from blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection caused by inhaling spores of a mold species known as blastomyces dermatitids is commonly found throughout the Southeast in moist soil.

Once contracted, blastomycosis is not contagious. Symptoms can range from joint pain and skin lesions to severe respiratory infections that only respond to treatments with anti-fungal medication.

Mr. Harrelson said the man who died of blastomycosis in May was diabetic and had a weakened immune system. He said people who already have compromised immune systems or delay treatment can end up with more severe cases of the illness. The elderly man, who lives near the school, and a student both remain hospitalized at Pitt Memorial Hospital, Mr. Harrelson said.

He said county and state health officials will continue searching through county death records, taking an especially close look at deaths attributed to pneumonia, because fungal pneumonia caused by blastomycosis is sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as bacterial pneumonia.

Mr. Harrelson said so far records haven't turned up any further suspicious deaths, and no new cases have been reported.

Pia McDonald, an epidemiologist with the N.C. Division of Public Health, is working with county officials to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Ms. McDonald said Tuesday that the Warsaw area is now the focus of an environmental study, and the attendance records of James Kenan High School are being looked at to determine whether there has been a pattern of absences that could be linked to the illness.

But she said the source of or even the true number of blastomycosis cases in Duplin County may remain a mystery, because some people can contract and recover from the illness without even knowing it.

It's a little like TB in that way, she said. Some people can get infected, get some small symptoms and then spontaneously heal themselves.

Victoria Rouch: 343-2315