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Blast Outbreak in Northern Ontario: What You Need to Know

TORONTO – A community in Northern Ontario is dealing with a possible outbreak of blastomycosis, a lung infection caused by inhaling molds and fungi found in the wilderness.

In an announcement on Facebook Live, Ramona Sutherland, Constance Lake First Nation Country Manager said that at least 11 people are suffering from serious lung infections. Indigenous Services Canada is working with first country and the Porcupine Public Health Unit to identify and address community needs.

Officials are inspecting sites in the community identified by Constance Lake’s First National Leader. Laboratory samples are underway to identify molds and fungi.

But where does blastomycosis originate and how is it spread? We asked Dr. Anna Banerji, associate professor of pediatrics and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

What is Blastomycosis?

It’s called a dimorphic fungus, which means that in most places it’s a mold but when it gets into the body at human temperature, it turns into a tiny yeast bud. So it’s not common, and most people who get it, it’s likely they have pneumonia. If the disease is diagnosed in time, you can treat it with antifungal medication and everyone should be fine. But I think the harder part is coming up with that diagnosis.

Why is it difficult to diagnose?

It’s uncommon and most people with blastomycosis aren’t diagnosed until much later. Sometimes they have findings in a chest X-ray and they think, ‘Wow, could this be TB? … Could this be cancer or something else? ‘

You can do a blood test to see if someone has antibodies against it, you can do a biopsy. It can go to any part of the body and sometimes it can go to the skin and you can get a swab from the skin and you can identify the fungus.

Are outbreaks common? Where was it found?

Outbreaks are still quite rare. It occurs in scattered areas in the north.

What is the source of this mold and where is it found?

It is a type of mold in the community, where it tends to appear is in decaying matter, so usually wood piles. So if there could be blastomycosis it’s there, it’s in a decomposing pile of wood, somebody moves it or everything is moved around and it gets spewed out.

How would an outbreak begin?

Usually, outbreaks happen when there’s a group of people and they’re moving wood, and there’s blast disease there, and they’re all exposed at the same time or at the same time.

Can this be passed from person to person?

It’s an yeast that stays in the body at temperature, and that yeast isn’t passed on to other people, so you can’t get it when they cough, you can’t get it in the same room as them. It’s really just from the environment that it’s mold, and mold forms spores, and by inhaling those spores, it can grow and transform into a yeast form in the body.

So the mold is outside?

It is usually on the outside of wood. It’s not like the black mold you see in residential complexes. Most people are not at risk; it is usually from an external event. The incubation period is like a month to a couple of months, so usually something happened a week or months ago, they moved something like rotting log out of the way, a A bunch of people were exposed and then within a month people started showing symptoms.

Is this easily treatable?

If you get it in time, it is an antifungal medicine; you take it by mouth, it can cure. So you just have to make sure you diagnose quickly and treat people quickly.

If this is not easily diagnosed, would that explain a larger outbreak?

It’s not easy to diagnose outside of an outbreak.

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