Even though Klarissa Mcallister’s brother was diagnosed with valley fever last year, she didn’t recognize the disease when it struck her 2-year-old son, Bentley Stone, this year.
The tiny toddler began developing night sweats in November, and then later, a rash. Mcallister's family, who lives near Taft, spends a lot of time riding ATVs in the desert, she said.
It wasn’t until January that a physician tested for valley fever, the insidious respiratory disease that claimed six lives and infected 2,310 in Kern County last year. It infected scores more across the southwestern United States as the disease’s reach has increased to epidemic levels, something for which state public health officials have no explanation.
“It would have been the last thing I would have thought,” Mcallister said. “I just thought he was warm blooded with the night sweats.”
Stone was the youngest valley fever survivor in a crowd of more than 120 who attended the Valley Fever Awareness Walk Saturday at Kern Pioneer Village, an annual event that raises the profile of the disease endemic to Kern County.
“When we started the walk, we didn’t realize survivors liked to see each other, but they do,” Sandra Larson, a past president of the Bakersfield-based Valley Fever Americas Foundation, which launched the event six years ago, said. “They want to meet somebody who has walked in their shoes.”
Those 120, however, represent just a sliver of those infected. It is widely underreported.
Chances are, if you’ve lived in Bakersfield for awhile, you either have gotten valley fever yourself, or know somebody who has. The disease, however, is largely misunderstood, and because the symptoms mimic the flu, it’s often misdiagnosed.
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis (cocci), is caused when microscopic fungal spores that are endemic to the southwestern United States get swept up into the air and inhaled. Sometimes, it can result in flu-like symptoms, and others don’t get sick at all. But in some cases, it can lead to extreme fatigue, night sweats, chills, skin lesions and respiratory issues. Other times, the fungus can spread to the bloodstream or brain and lead to a host of health issues, and in the rarest cases, lead to death.
There’s no vaccine, no medication developed specifically for cocci and relatively little funding when compared to higher-profile diseases, even though it annually infects more people than hantavirus, whooping cough and salmonella combined.
The key to prevention, experts say, is awareness.
On windy days when dust is swept into the air, stay inside. If you’re in your car, run the air conditioning and recirculate the air through the car. If you must go out, wear an N95 respirator mask.
Despite the lack of a vaccine or highly-effective medication, VFAF President Rob Purdie told those at the walk Saturday that there’s much to be proud of regarding valley fever research this year.
The National Institute of Health granted the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Arizona a $4.8 million grant to research a vaccine that has been in progress for years. Federal money was also granted to researchers in San Luis Obispo and Texas for similar efforts, Purdie said.
The Valley Fever Center for Excellence also received federal funding to research the genetics of valley fever victims in an attempt to uncover why the fungal spore disseminates in some races more than others.
Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) also introduced legislation this year to streamline reporting guidelines for valley fever after a Reporting on Health Collaborative report exposed flaws and inconsistencies across local, state and federal agencies.
It has so far met no opposition, but lost $1 million in valley fever funding in appropriations committee.
At the walk, Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) who co-authored the bill, said he and Salas plan to fight to get some of that money back.