For the first time in decades, the Kern County Department of Public Health will plaster billboards around town and along major highways warning residents of the danger of valley fever, a respiratory disease endemic to the region.

The announcement of the billboards – which could begin popping up around town as soon as Wednesday – will come during a press conference Wednesday, when county Public Health officials will also release the final number of valley fever cases in Kern County in 2016.

Experts suggested last fall that cases could surge above 1,500 and, although they would not release numbers Tuesday, Public Health officials indicated it could be worse than expected.

The billboards feature a looming dust storm approaching Bakersfield. It borrows the same message as the Arizona State Department of Public Health: “Cough? Fever? Exhausted? Ask your doctor to test you for valley fever.”

Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson told The Californian last month that she’s unsure of how many billboard spaces would be purchased, or how long the campaign would last. It all depends on funding.

The campaign, which marks a significant step forward for local awareness efforts, comes after a year-long series on valley fever by the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative, which includes The Bakersfield Californian. It also comes just weeks after Assemblyman Rudy Salas introduced AB 1279, legislation that would bring $2 million in funding to valley fever research and create more stringent guidelines in reporting the disease. Salas' office said The Collaborative's work helped spur the legislation. 

Until that legislation is passed, however, all awareness funding comes from the Public Health department's coffers. 

"It all comes out of our general fund," Corson said. "We have no additional funding for this." 

The state has historically provided no dollars for these types of endeavors, even as thousands are infected and killed every year and experts urge that awareness is key to preventing more cases. The department has led more inexpensive, passive campaigns in the past, printing flyers and pamphlets, hosting a website that details valley fever information and taking part in an awareness walk in August.

It has never launched anything as robust as a billboard campaign. 

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by airborne fungal spores that thousands of people inhale every year. Most don’t get sick. But for pregnant or immunocompromised people the risk of developing symptoms is heightened. The respiratory disease causes flu-like symptoms, extreme fatigue, chills and night sweats. If left untreated, the spores can disseminate throughout the bloodstream and create complications that can lead to death.

The best way to prevent those complications is early treatment, experts say. However, many people, including those living in endemic regions, underestimate valley fever’s impact and misunderstand the toll it takes.

The announcement of the awareness campaign comes at a time when cases could surge again this year. Public Health officials said cases were reaching epidemic levels in 2016, partially brought on by weather patterns. A wet winter grew more of the cocci fungus and a hot, dry summer offered the opportunity for it to get swept into the air. Those weather patterns are repeating themselves this year.

​Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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