Valley fever seminar series continues at UC Merced

Valley fever research in the San Joaquin Valley is continuing to attract public attention, due in part to UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute Valley Fever Seminar Series.

The series began in March and will continue into May. The project is designed to tackle questions about combating the illness and its effect on the community, according to organizers.

Dr. Herbert Boro, a medical consultant with the Medical Board in Fresno, provided an overview of Valley fever during the seminar’s fourth lecture Wednesday.

Boro touched on the epidemic’s history, endemic areas, life cycle, pathogenesis, patterns, diagnostic testing and treatment development.

Valley fever, also known as the “silent epidemic,” is a disease of the lungs caused by coccidioidomycosis, a fungal parasite found in soil. Valley fever occurs when microscopic fungal spores are inhaled.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fungus is common in dry, low rainfall areas, such as the San Joaquin Valley. Researchers estimate more than 150,000 people are affected by Valley fever each year, although most cases go undiagnosed, the CDC reports.

Symptoms, which can appear from one to three weeks after the fungal spores have been inhaled, range from flulike symptoms and joint pain to weight loss. More severe cases can cause chronic pneumonia, meningitis or even death.

Boro explained that Valley fever is of extreme relevance in the San Joaquin Valley, as cases are most common in times of drought. Although the disease is under-reported, Valley fever typically trends in summer and early fall when dry soil is disturbed by winds, farming or construction, according to Boro’s lecture. In California, the risk of infection is highest from June to November.

The disease has been typically associated with areas in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central America and South America, but this distribution is changing. Valley fever cases have recently been found in northern Utah and Oregon, Boro said.

There is no preventive or vaccine for Valley fever. The closest thing to effective treatment is Nikkomycin Z, a drug that has yet to go beyond clinical trials. Boro believes it will be a while before acure is produced because pharmaceutical companies see the problem of Valley fever and the market for drugs to treat it as too small and lacking enough profit.

“The most important thing we can do is establish a safe and effective vaccine for wide use in an endemic area,” he said. “In the meanwhile, the best we can do is learn to identify ways to keep the fungus from spreading.”

Dr. Erin Gaab, who has been in charge of organizing 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. “I’m hoping that we keep it that way.”

The next lecture will be 1 to 3 p.m. Friday at the UC Merced social sciences and management building, where UC Merced professor David Ojcius will further discuss findings of Valley fever research.