SPRINGFIELD, Mo -- In the aftermath of the Joplin tornado area hospitals were swamped with injuries and critical patients. A St. John's physician came across something unusual in the midst of it all.
Efforts at the local level helped health care providers all over the state diagnose something potentially deadly. When it comes to issuing health alerts there is a fine line between getting out much needed information and causing a panic in the general public. However, when the Springfield Greene County Health Department caught wind of a tissue destroying fungus, they decided to take action.
"One of the best infectious disease specialists in town says, 'We got a problem. We need to do an alert.' You take it seriously and you do it," said Director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department Kevin Gipson.
After the Joplin tornado wave after wave of patients flooded area hospitals. "It turned out to be a bigger deal than anyone expected it to be," Gipson said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, on june 3, a local physician notified the Springfield Greene County Health Department and the Missouri Health Department about two patients with tornado injuries. Both had suspected fungal soft tissue infections called mucormycosis.
It wasn't the first time that the deadly fungal infection has shown up after a natural disaster. According to the CDC, however, it is the first time that they've ever seen it after a tornado. The county contacted the state urging them to issue a state wide health alert.
"They decided not to. I suspect it's because they wanted to verify it," Gipson said.
The county health department, however, decided to act. They issued an alert to 43 area hospitals and clinics. "I still think it would have been the right decision to make with the information we had at the time," Gipson said.
By the time the state issued an alert June 10, the case count was up to eight.
"I'm not going to be critical of the state. They are who they are. They did what they thought was best as we did."
The cases stopped coming in on June 17 when 13 patients had been diagnosed. Five of those patients proved fatal. Whether or not an earlier state wide alert would have saved any lives will probably never be known.
"There was no autopsy done. Some were very severely injured."
The Missouri Health Department issued this statement:
We "worked with health care providers to establish and facilitate a process for identifying any organisms as quickly as possible. We worked in close coordination with local health officials when they issued an advisory on June 6 and in the days and weeks that followed."