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If you have a cough it might not be the flu. Valley fever cases on the rise in Merced County, data shows

Information about valley fever is displayed during Valley Fever Awareness Day on the University of California, Merced campus, Tuesday, (09-16-14). Valley fever is a fungal infection that can affect the body after inhaling coccidioides organisms.
Information about valley fever is displayed during Valley Fever Awareness Day on the University of California, Merced campus, Tuesday, (09-16-14). Valley fever is a fungal infection that can affect the body after inhaling coccidioides organisms. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

If you have flu-like symptoms, like cough, fever or difficulty breathing, that are lasting more than two weeks, state and Merced County health officials think you should ask your health provider about valley fever.

There’s been an increase of valley fever cases reported this year in Merced County and the rest of the state, according to data from the California Department of Public Health, but health officials can’t explain why.

Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, is caused by the spores of a fungus that grow in some California soil, officials said. People contract the disease when they breathe in spores that are in dust that gets into the air when it’s windy or when soil is disturbed, like during construction or digging.

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, there were 84 valley fever cases reported in Merced County, data shows. Last year, 63 cases were reported in the county during that period and in 2015 there were 67 cases.

“With an increase in reported valley fever cases, it is important that people living, working and travelling in California are aware of its symptoms, especially in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast, where it is most common,” said Dr. Karen Smith, CDPH director and state public health officer, in a statement.

Most other counties in the Central Valley also had an increase in cases this year based on the data compiled from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 by the Department of Public Health.

Madera County had 42 cases this year and 31 cases reported last year. There were 85 cases reported in Stanislaus County this year compared to the 57 reported last year.

In San Joaquin County, 118 were reported this year and 110 last year. Fresno County saw 558 cases this year and 400 last year.

“One of the biggest issues in public health is the misdiagnosis of valley fever,” said Erin Gaab, an affiliate of UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute.

Because symptoms look a lot like pneumonia, flu and cold symptoms, Gaab said, many people start to take cold medications and other antibiotics that don’t do anything to stop the fungus.

Most of the time, the illness will go away on its own, Gaab said.

“Most people do completely fine; they can breathe in the fungus and have no symptoms at all, but there is a small group of people in which it can develop into something more,” Gaab said.

In worst-case scenarios, valley fever can turn into fungal pneumonia and meningitis, Gaab said, which can be deadly but is less common.

Complications of valley fever can result in infection of the brain, joints, bone, skin or other organs, state health officials said. People with an increased risk for complications include those 60 years or older, pregnant women and people with diabetes or conditions that weaken their immune system.

African-Americans and Filipinos have a higher risk of contracting the disease, but the reason is unknown, officials said.

“All it takes is one breath; you can be driving down Highway 99 and you can contract valley fever,” Gaab said. “It’s very unusual, of course, but it can happen.”

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