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California’s valley fever on the rise

Lab supervisor Marilyn Mitchell pulls samples during tests for Valley Fever at the Community Medical Center lab in Fresno. (Photo: Fresno Bee/Craig Kohlruss, 2014, via AP)

The first sign that Rob Purdie had valley fever was when he woke up one day with what felt like a hangover but he hadn’t taken a drink.

He had a splitting headache that was so bad that he had to stay in dark room with the blinds drawn and his sunglasses on. He was eventually diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis meningitis, the most severe form of valley fever.

Today, nearly seven years later, the 45-year-old Bakersfield resident must take medication daily to control the symptoms and visit a doctor once a month for additional treatment. “I’m able to work,” he said. “I have a pretty good life. But I don’t have the energy I had.”

California public health officials aren’t sure why there were so many cases last year as well as in 2016, which was also a record year.

Valley fever, an illness caused by a fungus that lives in dirt and soil, is on the rise in California. The state public health department recently announced that 2017 saw the highest number of new valley fever cases recorded since the illness was first reported individually in 1995. There were 7,466 new cases reported last year, with nearly 64 percent occurring in the Central Valley and central coast,including Kern, Kings, Fresno, Tulare, Madera, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. Though the valley and coast seem to have very different environments, state public health officials say the soil and climate are similar enough to support the growth of the valley fever fungus.

The biggest concentration of cases (34 percent) is in Kern County, where Purdie lives. Purdie, who sits on the board of Valley Fever Americas Foundation, isn’t surprised. Kern County has long had a high number of cases and most people in the area know someone who has had the illness.

State public health officials consider valley fever a major public health concern because it affects so many people, there’s no vaccine or cure and the disease can be severe for some people, leading to hospitalization and even in rare cases to death. Though it’s concentrated in the Central Valley and central coast, it has been found as far north as Washington state and as far south as San Diego. It’s also been seen throughout the Southwestern states including Arizona, Utah and Nevada, and in Mexico and Central America.

California public health officials aren’t sure why there were so many cases last year as well as in 2016, which was also a record year.  In a press release, the public health department said possible factors include heavy rainfall after years of drought, more people living in areas where the fungus is present and increased testing and diagnosis by health care providers in the affected areas.

“Most people do recover. Once they recover, they’re considered immune to the disease.” — Dr. Duc Vugia

People get valley fever by breathing in microscopic fungal sporeswhen it is windy or when dirt is disturbed. Valley fever cannot be passed from one person to another. About 60 percent of people infected never get sick but the remainder show flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, cough, chest pains, muscle or joint aches, headaches and weight loss. State public health officials recommend people seek testing for valley fever if their symptoms last longer than two weeks.

“Most people do recover,” said Dr. Duc Vugia, chief of infectious diseases for the state public health department. “Once they recover, they’re considered immune to the disease.”

While anyone can get valley fever, certain people are more at risk –those 60 or older, pregnant women, African-Americans, Filipinos and people with diabetes.

It’s hard to fight valley fever because there is no good way to tell where the problematic fungus is, Vugia said. State public health officials recommend people avoid going outside when there is dusty air, closing windows and turning on recirculated air conditioning. Those who must be outside should wear N95 face masks, which are widely available in retail stores. It’s also a good idea to wet the soil before digging.

“It has a big impact on our whole community.” — Michelle Corson

In Kern County, where valley fever is so prevalent, the public health department, has a vigorous marketing campaign going to bring awareness with billboards and TV announcements explaining the illness and urging people to get tested. The main message, said spokesperson Michelle Corson, is: “Valley fever is an illness that has a treatment. The sooner you go to the doctor, the sooner you can get treatment.”

The department also maintains a website, kerncountvalleyfever.com, solely devoted to the illness. According to the site, the first case in Kern County was reported in 1901. The first great epidemic in the county lasted from 1991-1994 while the second began in 2010 and is still continuing.

“It affects a large number of our residents and people are unable to go to school or work,” Corson said. “It has a big impact on our whole community.”

Purdie isn’t sure how he got the disease but his wife thinks he may have contracted it when he was doing a lot of yard work and was moving dirt with a tractor.

He is thrilled with Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s new bill, introduced in July, that would provide $95 million for research into finding a vaccine for valley fever and other fungal diseases. That combined with public awareness campaigns about the disease make him feel optimistic about the future. “There’s hope on the horizon,” he said

 


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