A chef in Michigan has died from a fungal infection that ravaged his body for months – amid signs the strain is growing across the US.
Ian Pritchard, 29, from Petoskey, was taken off life support over the weekend at his own request after weeks of suffering and pain, according to his family who said the fungus ‘ate holes in his lungs’.
He was originally hospitalized around Thanksgiving with flu-like symptoms and transferred to a Detroit hospital for more intensive care where he was diagnosed with blastomycosis.
His condition quickly deteriorated as the spores moved deep into his lungs infecting the tissue there, making them look like ‘Swiss cheese’, according to his father Ron.
Ian Pritchard was in a medically-induced coma in a Detroit hospital before passing away over the weekend. Doctors were unable to eradicate the fungal infection, which would have tee’d Ian up for a life-saving lung transplant
Blastomyces is more common than scientists previously knew, cropping up in many eastern states where it is not considered endemic
The fungal infection was brought on by exposure to the blastomyces fungus that lurks in soil, wet leaves, and rotting wood across much of the Midwest.
Health officials have not found the source of Ian’s infection but his social media is flooded with images of himself spending time outdoors shooting with friends and running around with his black Labrador Retriever.
Infections in that region have been ticking up recent years, though the true toll of the fungus in the US is not known because the vast majority of states are not required to report them to the government.
Ian was a chef at a Harbor Springs Tex-Mex restaurant called Rodrigo’s before he died.
His father Ron said: ‘He was a good kid. He didn’t get in very much trouble, he was no trouble to raise.
‘People love his food, people love him.’
Ian was in the hospital for months before succumbing to the infection on Saturday.
The week before Thanksgiving, he was admitted to hospital.
The above map shows states where blastomycosis cases have been confirmed (red), recently confirmed (orange) or are suspected to occur (blue)
While It’s not clear what his symptoms were early on, but the early stages of blastomycosis infection typically resemble a flu-like illness.
Symptoms early on include cough, fever, chills, muscle aches, joint pain, and chest pain.
Mr Pritchard’s condition deteriorated quickly, and he was transferred to the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was there that doctors pinpointed the cause of his infection to be exposure to blastomyces.
In all, Ian was in the Detroit hospital for over five weeks.
His father Ron said: ‘They showed us a picture of his lungs, and they literally looked like Swiss cheese.’
The infection occurs when a person inhales spores of the blastomyces fungus, typically found in wet leaves, soil, and rotting wood. Infection from breathing in the spores is rare and only about half of those exposed will experience symptoms.
The infection begins in the lungs, where the spores lodge themselves into lung tissue.
The immune system launches an assault against the infection, sending an army of white blood cells to the lungs. This leads to inflammation in the lung tissue, though, causing lasting damage.
Blastomycosis can spread in the bloodstream to different parts of the body, including the bones, brain, and other organs. It kills between four and 22 percent of its victims.
Antifungal treatments are available, including Itraconazole and Amphotericin B. But the infection evaded anti-fungal medicine, which meant that Ian would not be able to get a much-needed lung transplant.
Ron Pritchard’s coworkers set up a GoFundMe page to help the family defray travel costs to stay with their son in the hospital and the medical bills piling up. Ian’s antifungal medicines alone cost about $7,000 for a month’s supply.
The fungus is endemic to the upper Midwest, the region in which hospitalizations due to blastomycosis is most common
Ian Pritchard, right, is pictured with his father Ron Pritchard
Ian is one of the roughly half of people exposed to the fungus who get sick. The infection is fatal in up to 22 percent of cases
According to an update on the GoFundMe page, Ian was responsive in his final days, and it was his decision to let go, asking his family to pull the plug.
The Pritchards have now lost two children. The first was Ian’s older brother, who was stillborn at eight months. Both boys were survived by their sister Megan, who was by Ian’s side when he passed away.
Exposure to blastomyces is relatively common in the upper Midwest and areas surrounding the Great Lakes.
Ron Pritchard said: ‘It’s in the air, it’s in the trees, it’s in the wet leaves, it’s in the ground, it’s in the mud, it’s in, everywhere. Everywhere in northern Michigan – in fact, the Midwest – is covered in [blastomyces].’
The true toll that blastomyces takes on a person’s health is not fully known because most states are not required to report infections.
The ones that report blastomycosis incidences include Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There is no indication yet that the fungus has gotten better at evading treatments, though it’s a threat that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has highlighted with another type of fungus, Candida auris (C. auris).
There are only one to three cases per 100,000 people each year in states where blastomycosis is a reportable condition.
Scientists have warned that an ever-warming global climate will only make infections like blastomycosis more common.
As temperatures get warmer, fungie adapt to survive in those warmer climates. They also learn to surive better in the warm bodies of humans.
A 2022 report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine said that more than 10 percent of fungal infections are diagnosed outside of regions where the pathogens are known to be endemic.
Dr. George Thompson, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Davis and co-author of the report, said: We’re definitely seeing disease in locations that we previously have not.
‘And that’s concerning, because if we’re recognizing those locations, where are the places it’s occurring that just have not been recognized quite yet?’