By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

WESTON — The Marathon County Health Department is investigating a cluster of blastomycosis cases in the village of Weston, but officials are refusing to say exactly where the outbreak is.

County Health Officer Joan Theurer said Friday that releasing specific information would give people “a false sense of security.”

“Just because nobody who got diagnosed is in your neighborhood doesn’t mean you couldn’t be affected,” Theurer said. “It really serves no public interest in releasing that level of detailed information.”

The Wausau Daily Herald filed an open records request with the health department Friday, seeking more specific information about the location of the clusters.

Local hospitals have reported 50 cases of the fungal infection in Marathon County so far this year, twice the number of cases reported in all of 2009. The usually rare infection can develop when people breathe in spores released into the air by fungus that can cause long-term health problems or death.

Weston Administrator Dean Zuleger said Friday that county officials are focusing on land close to Machmueller Park at the northeast corner of the village. Theurer refused to comment on Zuleger’s assessment of the location.

Weston Community Development Director Jennifer Higgins said the village received an e-mail from the county’s health department on Sept. 3, informing village leaders that clusters of the disease had been found in the town of Wausau and in Weston. But the county also has refused to give her additional information, she said.

Weston included an item about the disease in its weekly newsletter released Friday, realizing that residents had become concerned, Higgins said.

“I was contacted directly by one man, but neighbors talk and we wanted to give people any information we could,” she said. “We’re learning about (blastomycosis) along with everyone else.”

Ruth Marx, an epidemiologist with the county’s Health Department, said the Weston cases largely fall within one subdivision, but she also refused to release the name of that community.

“The persons’ addresses are protected medical information, and (blastomycosis) can have an impact on property values,” Marx said.

The trouble for scientists and residents alike is how little is known about preventing blastomycosis. And while treatment is available, symptoms can easily be mistaken for another illness or injury in people and animals.

Symptoms similar to pneumonia can occur in people, including shortness of breath, dry coughing and muscle aches, according to the county health department. People with already-compromised health might want to use a mask if they’re working outside, Marx said.

Chris Bleifuss, a veterinarian at Kronenwetter Veterinary Care, said dog owners should pay attention to coughing or faster breathing, open sores or swollen joints.

In Marathon County, the disease has been found in multiple members of households and in unusual patients, especially men younger than 50 years old and women and children of any age, catching the attention of state and national experts.

The county health department, along with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began a study of the cases in Marathon County this summer.

The fungus has not been grown in a laboratory, preventing in-depth study of how it grows and operates. Researchers hoped such a large cluster of patients would offer them more opportunity to study the disease, Marx said.

“We want to be able to tell people more than ‘These are the symptoms, go to a doctor if you have them,'” Marx said. “But at this point, it’s all we can say.”