More people in Kern County have gotten sick with valley fever than public health officials previously thought, marking the third straight year infections have risen.

Kern County Department of Public Health Services officials revised their numbers this week, announcing that 2,310 people were infected with valley fever in 2016 – roughly an 18 percent increase over what they announced in April.

The number of fatalities – six – didn’t change.

“We do feel confident that this does represent all of the cases of 2016, however we never know for sure, but we do expect this is it,” Michelle Corson, a Public Health spokeswoman, said.

The revised figures make 2016 the worst year for infections since 2011, the peak year of the last epidemic. Valley fever infected 2,745 that year and killed 32. The rate of infection last year was 264 per 100,000, with most getting sick during September and October, two historically peak months for infection. 

“The increase in valley fever cases over the last three years is a concern and is a strong reminder that we need to remain aware and diligent in reducing exposure and increase testing throughout our community,” said Matt Constantine, director of Public Health. “Valley fever is endemic to Kern County and we all need to be aware of the symptoms. Talk to your health-care provider if you think you might have valley fever.”

Valley fever is an insidious respiratory disease that starts with the coccidioides fungus found in arid parts of the southwestern United States, including Kern County. When the fungus is disturbed, spores can become airborne and be breathed in.

Some people don't develop symptoms while others develop a fever, flu-like symptoms, extreme fatigue and a cough. The disease can, in rare cases, spread throughout the body and cause death.

The key to prevention? Avoiding the outdoors on dusty days, public health officials say.

If you must go outside, wear an N95 respirator mask and if driving, keep the windows shut with the air conditioner set to recirculate the air in the car.

Public Health officials launched a billboard campaign earlier this year to bring more public awareness to the disease ahead of the late summer months, when infections tend to spike. 

​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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