US tornado toll hits 151 as fungus strikes victims

The toll from the deadliest single tornado to strike the United States in six decades rose to 151, and eight hospitalised victims were infected with a rare and potentially deadly fungus kicked up by the storm, officials said Friday.

The toll from the May 22 tornado which destroyed a third of the town of Joplin, Missouri jumped by 13 from the number reported last week because a number of critically ill patients died in hospital, the Jasper County coroner's office reported.

That brings the year's total to 535 tornado fatalities, making 2011 the deadliest tornado season since 1927 and the sixth worst on record according to the national weather service.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said Friday it had received eight reports of patients suffering from "suspected deep skin fungal infection" as a result of their injuries in the tornado.

A spokeswoman for the department did not immediately return a request to confirm reports that at least three of those patients had died, including one woman whose arm was amputated in an attempt to control the infection. However, an epidemiologist with the local county health department said the infections can be quite dangerous.

"Several physicians have stated they could actually see the fungus growing on the wound so they would have to actually go in and scrape the wound out," said Kendra Williams, administrator of community health and epidemiology Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

"Some individuals were having that done on a daily basis." The fungus is commonly found in soil and vegetative matter, but only poses a hazard if it is deeply embedded in a traumatic wound, said Williams. It can be successfully treated with antifungal drugs and surgical removal but if someone already had an underlying immune-compromising condition, "they're going to struggle with it," Williams said, adding "it could lead to fatalities."

There is little concern that the hundreds of people working to clean up the miles of tornado damage in Joplin will be impacted, she added.

"It's not (caused by) a scratch and it's more than probably stepping on a nail or a screw. It's got to be pretty traumatic."

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