FRESNO -- Reporting On Health Collaborative
QUESTION: What is valley fever?
ANSWER: Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, is a disease caused by a fungus called coccidioides immitis found in the soil primarily in certain parts of the Southwestern United States, Mexico and Central and South America. A person can become infected by inhaling the spores of the fungus. The infection starts in the lungs, but can spread to other organs in the body, and the bones.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Fever, a persistent cough that won't go away, night sweats, weight loss and different kinds of rashes. Once a person is infected with the fungus, it does not leave the body.
Q: How is it diagnosed?
A: Most commonly through a blood test. It can also be diagnosed through a biopsy at the site of the infection.
Q: How can it be treated?
A: The first step is correctly diagnosing the disease. Clinicians should find out whether it has spread and identify the patient's risk factors for it causing severe illness. If the infection is confined to the lungs and a patient has no other risk factors, current guidelines call only for monitoring the patient to see if the fever goes away. If the infection has spread and patients are at high risk of complications, clinicians often turn to antifungal drugs, such as fluconazole, sold as Diflucan, and surgery.
Q: How common is valley fever?
A: Researchers estimate that 150,000 people are stricken with valley fever every year nationally, but the vast majority of cases are misdiagnosed as something else or never treated. Cases that are diagnosed have been rising dramatically -- more than twelvefold since 1995. It kills about 100 people every year.
Q: How can people avoid becoming infected?
A: One of the challenges in preventing the disease is a lack of clear guidelines. In known high-risk areas, people working outdoors are encouraged to wear a mask and construction crews are encouraged to keep dust down by wetting the area. Studies in mice have shown that, in principal, a vaccine would work, but funding for developing a vaccine has been scarce.
Q: Who is at most risk?
A: Blacks, Filipinos, people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or cancer, recent organ transplant recipients and pregnant women are at most risk for developing severe complications from the disease.
Sources: Michael MacLean, health officer for the Kings County Department of Public Health; Dr. James McCarty, head of the pediatric infectious disease unit at Children's Hospital Central California in Madera; The Environmental Health and Safety Division at California State University, Fullerton.