Suspected blastomycosis outbreak in Constance Lake would not be the first in northeastern Ontario

A suspected blastomycosis outbreak in Constance Lake First Nation this week would not be the first time the fungal infection has impacted a northern Ontario community.

In 2017, a blastomycosis outbreak in Sheshegwaning First Nation sent 15 people to hospital

Ramona Sutherland is chief of Constance Lake First Nation, where 13 people have been admitted to hospital due to a possible blastomycosis outbreak. (Jimmy Chabot/Radio-Canada)

A suspected blastomycosis outbreak in Constance Lake First Nation this week would not be the first time the fungal infection has impacted a northern Ontario community.

As of Tuesday evening, 13 people from Constance Lake First Nation have been treated in hospital for probable blastomycosis. Three people from the community have died since the outbreak began, although their deaths have not yet been linked to the fungal lung disease, pending autopsy results.

In 2017, a similar outbreak in Sheshegwaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island sent 15 people to the hospital.

"My own son, Mitchell, he was actually the first patient, so they were treating him for symptoms of exacerbated asthma," said Dean Roy, who was Sheshegwaning First Nation's chief at that time.   

"He was having a lot of problems, a lot of breathing difficulties, and it does present like pneumonia."

Roy said they discovered their soil conditions were ideal for the fungus that causes the infection, blastomyces, to prosper.

"There's definitely lasting effects," Roy added. "I mean, my children, they still have trouble, lung problems and what have you, especially with asthma that they already had. Those things take a while to go away."

Fungus common in parts of northern Ontario

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the blastomyces fungus is common in certain parts of northern Ontario.

Banerji said it usually grows in rotting wood. If that wood is disturbed, a person or other animal might inhale the spores as they spread through the air.

She said it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months for the spores to grow in the lungs and for a person to present symptoms.

Those symptoms include difficulty breathing, a fever, cough, night sweats, chest pain, fatigue and muscle aches.

"Some people have no symptoms," Banerji said. "They can be asymptomatic or it can grow and cause a pneumonia. It's often misdiagnosed as a pneumonia."

Banerji said if blastomycosis is caught early, it can be treated with an antifungal. 

"The problem is that sometimes people don't think about it," she said. "So it can present as severe pneumonia, and someone can deteriorate and die."

Banerji added people cannot spread the infection. The spores must come from rotten wood or soil where the fungus is present to enter the lungs. 

Because the fungus becomes airborne when disturbed, there have been reports of family pets, especially dogs, diagnosed with blastomycosis.

Constance Lake First Nation Chief Ramona Sutherland said a dog from their community died, although they could not confirm if it was from the outbreak.

Highway lost his eyesight after he survived a battle against blastomycosis. (Supplied by Dillon Daveikis)

Impact on dogs

Rick Calhoun said he lost his dog Rio to blastomycosis in 2016. Calhoun lived in North Bay at the time and regularly went for walks with Rio in the Birch Haven area, and along the trails near Canadore College and the Laurentian Ski Hill. 

The first symptoms they noticed was excessive panting. Rio later collapsed while running in the backyard.

"After several visits to our veterinarian, consultation with a good friend who is also a vet, and more incidents of collapse, we learned that he had blastomycosis," Calhoun said.

He said their vet had to end Rio's life because he was too far gone.

Dillon Daveikis of Sudbury said her dog Highway lost his eyesight after he was diagnosed with the disease.

"Highway and I walk in the bush all the time," Daveikis said. "He could have picked it up on any of our walks or on any of his many digs."

She said Highway developed some pustules on his face, which helped their veterinarian diagnose him with blastomycosis and save his life.

With files from Erik White