At least two Boy Scout campers who returned from a recent trip with fevers, chills and a cough have been hospitalized for exposure to a rare and unusual disease linked to bird and bat droppings found in the soil, spurring involvement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
St. Francisville resident Emiley Bonano has been battling histoplasmosis — a condition caused by inhaling a fungus found in bird and bat waste — since she traveled to Camp Avondale, located in East Feliciana Parish, with her little brother’s Boy Scout troop in early November.
She became sick with flu-like symptoms about a week after their return and went to the doctor, but didn’t think a recent camping trip significant enough to mention as a possible cause for her unrelenting symptoms.
Emiley’s family spent weeks in and out of emergency rooms trying to pinpoint the cause of the 16-year-old’s illness. Finally, a doctor saw unusual white spots covering the teenager’s lungs in an X-ray and asked whether she had spent much time outdoors recently.
Emiley’s mom, Michelle Duos, said Thursday that her daughter has been hospitalized since Nov. 21, completing an intensive week-long round of intravenous medication that will be followed by three months of an oral drug to help with symptoms.
The condition is so severe she’s been hooked up to an oxygen machine and likely will not return to school until next year.
The CDC on Friday confirmed it was investigating illnesses “potentially due to” histoplasmosis but deferred to the Louisiana Department of Health for information, including the number of confirmed cases.
State epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said he can’t discuss specific cases and could not confirm how many campers on that trip contracted the disease.
According to data on the health department’s website, the fungus itself is not uncommon, but almost all people who come in contact with it won’t display any symptoms. What’s rare is to contract such a serious illness as a result of exposure and for the Midwest-prevalent fungus to be reported so far south.
“The ER doctor said, ‘if you’d have told me you went camping somewhere more north, it would all make sense, but typically you don’t see it in this part of the country,’” Duos said.
Duos said she told CDC researchers that her daughter and ex-husband often travel to Camp Avondale without issue, but this time, almost every camper has had symptoms like a fever or chills when they returned. She said she's not sure how many people went on the trip.
It was after speaking with the CDC that Duos remembered a Facebook friend — an adult who also had been on the camping trip — complaining on social media about ongoing illness. She reached out to him about Emiley’s diagnosis, and soon after, he too was in the hospital undergoing treatment.
He could not be reached for comment Friday, but Duos said to her knowledge, he was still hospitalized.
Ratard said the disease is often referred to as “caver’s disease,” but patients also can contract it from chicken coops, for example, or in this case, a campsite.
It’s hard to identify in a laundry list of common symptoms like fever or chest pains that could indicate so many other ailments, Ratard said, so data is hard to accurately gauge.
“The flu is so common, and with strep and pneumonia, usually you wouldn’t think about histoplasmosis unless a chest X-ray is very unusual,” Ratard said.
A health department region that encompasses East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Ascension, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes recorded only eight confirmed hospitalizations due to histoplasmosis between 1999 and 2014, according to a department data sheet.
By comparison, Caddo Parish recorded 131 hospitalizations over that same time period.
Duos believes her daughter’s recent appendectomy could have made her more susceptible to the sickness that’s left her wheezy and weak after walking only a few feet.
“Even when she’s home, she’s got to regain her strength because she’s basically been laying in a bed for three weeks. She gets short of breath very easily; it’s a long road ahead,” Duos said.
It’s a difficult diagnosis with a lengthy recovery time, but Duos said she feels fortunate doctors were able to identify the illness. She also said she hopes Emiley’s story can raise awareness so other area residents exhibiting symptoms after time outdoors have a launching pad from which they could discuss histoplasmosis with their doctor.
“I think by the time we got a diagnosis, I was just grateful to have something because the doctors really had no idea what it was, tests kept coming back negative,” she said.
“I think the main thing is if you have flu-like symptoms and you’ve been to the doctor but haven’t gotten any better, you need to go to the hospital.”