Doctoral candidate presents research on racial disparities in Valley fever

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comMay 7, 2014 

Latino and black men are more likely to acquire and die from Valley fever than other groups, research shows, but very little is known about why that occurs.

According to Sarah Rios, a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a possible explanation as to why these groups are especially vulnerable could be because of the environments they are exposed to.

During a lecture at UC Merced on Wednesday, Rios presented research that examines how race, gender and geography shape the environmental health risk of Valley fever for certain nonwhite groups in the Central Valley. The lecture is part of a Valley Fever Seminar Series hosted by UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute. Valley fever is a fungal infection of the lungs.

Rios, who comes from a family of farmworkers in the Salinas-Watsonville area, completed her undergraduate studies at Fresno State. After college, Rios joined the United Farm Workers, where she started developing the foundation for her work.

Rios currently collects interviews from Valley fever patients in Kern County, where there is a large population of farmworkers. Because Valley fever is prevalent in areas where dirt and soil are disturbed, farmworkers are at greater risk. Rios recruits subjects mostly at health fairs, swap meets and bus stations in Bakersfield, Wasco and Taft.

These patients, who are in large part Spanish speakers, share with Rios their experiences in dealing with the disease as well as their access to health care.

Rios noted that because a large number of these people are undocumented, they do not have access to proper medical care.

“Most of the affected people have worked in the fields,” Rios said. “They become sick, but they never know if it’s Valley fever, pesticide poisoning or exhaustion, because some of the symptoms are very similar. And without visiting a doctor, there’s no way to know for sure.”

“I’ve heard cases of people who work until they collapse,” she continued. “Their knees just give out.”

It is not until these workers are taken to a hospital that they learn about the possibility of Valley fever, Rios explained.

Although there is still no cure for Valley fever, antifungal medications can be used to treat more severe cases. However, Rios said, the costs of these medications are too high for most farmworkers.

“Medicine is very expensive. While speaking with these people, I’ve found that many feel the financial burden that they are placing on their families is not worth it,” she said. “As horrible as it might sound, some people feel it’s easier to just die.”

Rios said that the next step in her research is to collect information from prisons.

“There have been numerous reports of Valley fever cases from correctional institutions in the Central Valley,” she said. Most of these cases affect black and Latino males, she explained.

“These individuals go into prison healthy and come out sick; that’s a true life sentence,” she said.

According to the California Department of Public Health, Valley fever has been reported in most California counties, but more than 75 percent of the cases have been reported in the San Joaquin Valley.

Anyone who lives, works or travels in areas with high rates of Valley fever is at risk of getting infected. The highest rates of Valley fever in the state are found in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Monterey, Kings and San Luis Obispo counties.

Dr. Erin Gaab, who has organized the lecture series, said she has noticed an increase in community interest in Valley fever research.

“It’s been great to see students, Valley fever survivors and other members of the community come to our lectures and bring up good questions,” she said during a previous lecture. “I’m hoping that we keep it that way.”

Gaab will present the preliminary findings from a study of children with Valley fever during the next lecture in the seminar series. The lecture will take place at 1 p.m. May 14 at UC Merced.

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

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