UC Merced researchers to study kids, Valley fever

Erin Gaab, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute, is taking the initiative in looking closer at the psycho-social issues faced by families with children who have been diagnosed with Valley fever.

With the help of 13 undergraduate research assistants, Gaab is leading the pediatric coccidioidomycosis research project, which aims to better understand the quality of life and psychological functioning of Valley fever patients in California.

According to Gaab, the data will be collected through structured interviews conducted mainly in English and Spanish. Her goal is to interview between 50 and 150 families. Children ages 8 to 18 and their caregivers will be asked about their well-being, their health care experience, their perceptions of Valley fever and their coping mechanisms.

Gaab, whose background is in pediatric palliative care,became interested in Valley fever when doctors from Children’s Hospital Central California visited UC Merced to discuss a possible collaboration between doctors and researchers to gather more information about the epidemic.

“In pediatric palliative care, we deal with children who have conditions like cancer and other end-of-life conditions,” said Gaab. “That’s why I became interested in Valley fever, because of its similarities to chronic diseases.”

Valley fever, also known as the “silent epidemic,” is an illness caused by coccidioidomycosis, a fungal parasite found in soil. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fungus is common in dry, low rainfall areas of the United States, such as the San Joaquin Valley.

Valley fever occurs when microscopic fungal spores are inhaled. The CDC reports that researchers estimate more than 150,000 people a year are affected by Valley fever, although most cases go undiagnosed.

According to Kings County Health Officer Dr. Michael MacLean, the range of symptoms is huge, and can include anything from influenzalike symptoms and muscle aches to fevers and pneumonia. More severe cases can lead to death.

“We think that about 60 percent of people develop no symptoms,” said MacLean. “Most people will do fine, but you still want to be very cautious.”

MacLean believes it is important for UC Merced to take the lead in Valley fever research. “If they don’t try to push forward the science in California, especially in the Central Valley, then who will,” MacLean said.

Gaab is training her group of research assistants on how to interview Valley fever patients. Gaab chose the assistants after interviewing former students from her health psychology lecture class who showed interest in getting hands-on experience in her research project.

Michelle Burrowes, one of Gaab’s research assistants and a biology student at UC Merced, said her participation in the pediatric coccidioidomycosis research has been a great learning experience.

“I had never done research like this before, and I hadn’t really heard of Valley fever until Dr. Gaab introduced us to it,” Burrowes said. “It’s been very hands-on, and with her (Gaab’s) guidance, we’ve been able to conduct the pilot interviews ourselves, so that’s very exciting.”

Research assistant Fiona Bui, also a UC Merced biology student, became interested in Valley fever when her uncle was diagnosed with the disease about three years ago.

“It took a while for him to be correctly diagnosed,” Bui said. “He was told by doctors that it was a case of pneumonia, but that wasn’t right. I’ve seen firsthand how this disease can affect someone, so I think it’s important for us to gather more information we can share with the community.”

According to Gaab, very little has been written about children with Valley fever. She hopes her research will help characterize the effects and implications of the silent epidemic.

“The lack of attention is definitely the most concerning thing about Valley fever,” Gaab said. “It’s such a strange illness. Most people don’t develop symptoms, while others are so affected that it becomes life-limiting.”

Gaab is also taking part in expanding the California Valley Fever Network, a group of universities, doctors, researchers and advocates whose goal is to bring Valley fever awareness to communities.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a part of this movement toward a greater understanding of coccidioidomycosis; there’s certainly a need for more research in the Central Valley and we are in the perfect position here at UC Merced, with the help of UCSF Fresno, to help connect our researchers, health care providers and community,” Gaab said.

Gaab’s research is funded by the UC Merced Health Sciences Research Institute. She expects her research will take about a year to complete.