By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

WESTON — While county and state health officials have focused their study of blastomycosis on the village of Weston and town of Wausau, new information shows the disease is widespread in the metro area.

According to documents obtained by the Wausau Daily Herald under open records law, 53 blasto cases have been reported in Marathon County since January, more than twice the number reported in all of 2009. The documents show 16 instances of the disease in Wausau and 15 spanning Weston, Rothschild and Schofield.

The Daily Herald filed an open records request seeking specific information about the location of local cases from the Marathon County Health Department, which initially reported that cases were concentrated in a small area in Weston.

The county’s reluctance to release information about the outbreak frustrates Weston resident Teri Richmond, whose husband was the first to alert the village about problems after their dog Lucky was found to have blasto.

“Personally, we would have brought (Lucky) to the vet much sooner if we had known what to look for,” she said. “I’ve learned now that pets can be a sign that the fungus is present. They should have let residents know what to look for.”

The fungus that causes blasto is believed to develop in damp, decaying material and spreads when a human or animal inhales its spores. In extreme cases, the disease can be more severe — an elderly Merrill woman died in April after contracting the disease, the most recent Wisconsin death.

Health department officials refused to narrow their description of the clusters in September, claiming that doing so did not serve the public interest, could give a false sense of security to people or could harm property values.

“We would emphasize that these (maps) demonstrate where people who have the disease happen to live,” Director Joan Theurer explained last week when the documents were released. “It is not necessarily where they contracted blastomycosis.”

Health department officials still refuse to identify specific households in which members have come down with blastomycosis, citing patient privacy laws. They would narrow every case only to a one-mile radius and did not say how many cases have been reported in Marathon and Athens, for fear doing so would identify individual patients.

Local, state and federal researchers hoped the high number of cases in Marathon County would help them learn something about the elusive fungus that causes blastomycosis. The Marathon County Health Department, Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed up this summer to study the disease.

But Theurer and Judy Burrows, head of the county’s Chronic Disease Prevention unit, said they don’t expect the CDC to announce any new conclusions in a report scheduled for release this fall. Researchers still have been unable to isolate the fungus in a lab, limiting their ability to learn how the organism operates and grows.

Dr. Matt Hall, an infectious diseases consultant for Marshfield Clinic, said the best thing people concerned about blastomycosis can do is be aware of the symptoms.

“Put in the context of other things to worry about, I’d be more concerned about drunk drivers or car accidents,” he said. “In my experience here, doctors are very aware of blastomycosis, and they know what to look for.”

Health officials recommend that people with respiratory problems wear masks when gardening or working in dirt around their homes.

Pets can be a first indicator of blastomycosis in an area, serving as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” Hall said. Richmond and Melissa Hoffman, both residents of Weston’s northeast side, learned that firsthand.

Lucky, the Richmonds’ golden retriever who helped alert the village to the problem, lost vision in her right eye and still has a scar from a large skin lesion that developed on her shoulder after she contracted the disease.

Richmond said her first concern was whether the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Makenna, was at risk of developing blasto. Since Lucky’s blasto was diagnosed at the beginning of August, the Richmonds have tried to keep their daughter from playing in mulch in the backyard of their home.

The Hoffmans’ English pointer, Marley, was found to have blastomycosis in March after the family noticed the dog was coughing and wasn’t eating.

Marley hasn’t been outside anywhere except around the family’s home, and Hoffman said she worries about her children digging in the large dirt piles in the neighborhood near new housing construction.

“I think I said there are bugs in the dirt that can make them sick (to keep them out of the dirt),” Hoffman said. “But they’re kids. It didn’t sink in much.”

Lack of information and knowledge about preventing blastomycosis frustrates everyone involved, from residents in the neighborhoods with reported cases to the health department officials investigating the disease.

“We see our job as giving people information about this,” Theurer said. “Of course it’s frustrating when all we can tell them is what symptoms to look out for.”