After Joplin twister, a mystery illness

Associated Press Modified: October 5, 2012 at 9:32 am •  Published: October 5, 2012
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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.

"We had our ears open to anything that might pop up," said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department. "We had the fungus, and we had some reports about the tornado cough. But the cough had a lot to do with the heat, allergies and dust in the air. There was nothing else locally."

The department used air-monitoring equipment, provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to check for asbestos and other airborne substances in the tornado zone that might adversely affect public health. The monitoring revealed no threats.

Pekarek said he had heard about a case where a man from the Kansas City area had become ill, but he had no way of contacting him. He later heard that the man had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness.

Dina Forest believes the man Pekarek had heard about was her husband.

"He was tested for Lyme disease," she said of her husband. "It came back positive the first time. But a second test was negative. He also was tested for West Nile (virus). It came back positive. He had been exposed to it sometime in the past. The doctors say he does not have the symptoms for an active case of West Nile."

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