Valley Fever Strikes Hard In California Towns

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Arthroconidia of Coccidioides immitis. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Arthroconidia of Coccidioides immitis. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Often considered a "silent epidemic," valley fever officially infected 22,000 Americans in 2011 — most of them in California and Arizona — but some think the numbers are much higher.

It's an infection that can wreak havoc on the lungs, heart, bones and in some cases the brain. At its worst, its fatal.

Valley fever is prevalent in hot, dry climates and it's thought to spread through contact with soil.

In the past two decades, about 2,000 people have died from it. And in one town, the prevalence is so high that a judge ordered 26 prisoners moved from the local jail because they were deemed to be at too high a risk of infection.

Three sick siblings

Jim McGee is a parent of four in the small town of Avenal, Calif. Three of his four children have contracted valley fever. Two of them presented flu-like symptoms, but it was worse for his older daughter.

"One day at school, she didn't come back from the restroom. One of her friends came to check on her and found her in the middle of the bathroom floor, unconscious and convulsing," McGee told Here & Now.

There is a need for more attention, for more resources to try to develop a prevention for this disease.

Dr. Jim McCarty

McGee had no idea what was wrong at first.

"They checked her for many, many things," he said. "She went to a neurologist. She also went, you know, to our family doctor, and he immediately suspected she had Valley Fever."

His daughter had to miss six weeks of school while she recovered, and all three children have lingering effects of the disease.

Cases on the rise

Dr. Jim McCarty, a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital Central California, treated McGee’s children.

"If patients have these flu-like symptoms — with fever and cough and joint pain and muscle aches and rashes — and weeks have gone by, then I think it’s important that they and also their healthcare provider consider valley fever as a possibility," McCarty said.

For reasons that aren't yet understood, the incidence of valley fever is rising. McCarty expects it’s due to a combination of weather, more human activity that disrupts dust and more susceptible people moving to the area.

A need for more research

“There is a need for more attention, for more resources to try to develop a prevention for this disease,” McCarty said, noting that valley fever is not well understood — despite being endemic in the Southwest — because there isn’t much funding for research, controlled trials or the development of a vaccine.

For McGee’s family, the children’s health problems have caused the family to think seriously about moving.

“We’re up in the air about what we are going to do, but we’re certain we’re going to have to do something,” McGee said.


Read more

New York Times "Many scientists believe that the uptick in infections is related to changing climate patterns. Kenneth K. Komatsu, the state epidemiologist for Arizona, where 13,000 cases were reported last year, said that another factor may be urban sprawl: 'digging up rural areas where valley fever is growing in the soil,' he said."

This segment aired on July 30, 2013.


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