After the Reporting on Health Collaborative started publishing this series, Amin was invited to speak to Kaiser Permanente physicians in Kern County about the disease. Later, one of the Kaiser doctors who participated spotted a case of valley fever in a pregnant patient who had a bump on her leg, Amin said.
The California Department of Public Health does not have any funding dedicated specifically to the disease, according to an email from the department. It did recently receive a one-time $80,000 grant from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study valley fever and other fungal diseases.
Better tests needed
Faster, more accurate tests are needed to help doctors root out more cases of valley fever, experts said.
Physicians usually confirm suspected cases of valley fever by blood tests that show increases in the patient's antibodies. But some patients don't test positive even when they appear to be suffering from valley fever and respond well to an antifungal course of treatment.
Repeated testing may be needed because it takes time for a patient's antibodies to develop. The results can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
Emergency room workers may be reluctant to order the test because by the time the results come back, the patient is gone, Galgiani said.
Current antifungal treatments for valley fever can have harsh side effects and may let the disease spread before they work.
Bakersfield resident Diana Frizzelle has been taking an antifungal medication for more than a year to keep valley fever at bay.
She said her hair is falling out and her skin is dry because of the pills. She read the valley fever series in her newspaper hoping for some tidbit of information that would help her situation.
"I keep hoping because it's never going to go away," she said.
Galgiani is working on a drug called Nikkomycin Z and finds his work limited by the lack of financing. "The reason we don't know if it is a cure or not or how good it is, is because we don't have the money," Galgiani said.
Phase one safety trials in people have been conducted. And researchers are ready to see if the drug works in people who are infected with valley fever.
Galgiani received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health but his center has struggled to produce enough of the drug to conduct an effective trial. If enough of the drug can be made, clinical trials could start in the fall of 2013, Galgiani said.
"We are moving it forward; we're just going very slowly," Galgiani said. With an investor's backing and an estimated $40 million, the drug could be ready in five years, Galgiani said, but, so far, no drug companies have signed up to fund the work.
The future of a vaccine also hinges on clearing financial hurdles. Funding in the past has been "chicken feed" compared to what would be needed to produce a vaccine, said Amin, the Bakersfield doctor.
The price tag for a vaccine could be double that of developing a new drug, according to Galgiani, at least $80 million.
Valley fever experts said a combination of federal, state and private money would likely be needed to bolster the efforts. Estimates of how long it could take to produce a vaccine varied among the researchers.
A revival of the consortium approach that helped spur progress in the past could help vaccine research today, Cole said. With better funding, more labs might take interest and join in the efforts, he said.
Valley fever's history is cyclical.