We like to think we’re winning the battle against valley fever, and in some ways we are. Educational outreach efforts are gaining momentum; more people know of the illness than perhaps ever before.
For the decades of work researchers have done, however, the reality is that in many ways we haven’t gotten very far. There’s still no treatment developed specifically for valley fever, no vaccine and little funding to turn the tide on the disease. Treatments for some forms of valley fever are so bad that they cause photosensitivity and patients develop skin cancer.
Big pharma won’t commit money to developing suitable treatments because valley fever is considered an orphan disease. The government doesn’t provide a steady funding stream because it’s not spread from person to person.
But it affects thousands. If the numbers are any indication, we’re losing the battle against the disease as its reach extends beyond just the southwestern United States. There have been cases reported in areas as far flung as Washington state, which historically, has seen never had valley fever cases.
Last year was the worst for valley fever cases in five years in Kern County. The fungal spores that cause the illness killed six Kern County residents in 2016 and infected 1,905 others, a 62 percent surge over 2016.
What’s the next step? Funding, of course. And broader knowledge of the symptoms — not only for residents but the medical community as well — continues to be vital. Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, has been misdiagnosed for years, often with disastrous results.
But another aspect of this fight has been somewhat underplayed in the effort to inform the public of this regional scourge: prevention.
To this end, San Joaquin Community Hospital is doing its part, hosting a noon lecture today, “The Silent Epidemic: Valley Fever Prevention and Detection,” with Dr. Bahareh Ghafarizadeh, who specializes in internal medicine. (Call 661-869-6560 to RSVP for the free luncheon and lecture.)
We must do a better job of informing Kern County residents how to minimize their chances of infection in the first place.
Spread the word. According to the Centers for Disease Control:
• Try to avoid areas with a lot of dust like construction or excavation sites. If you can’t avoid these areas, wear an N95 respirator (a type of face mask) while you’re there. Google “N95” for information about these inexpensive, unobtrusive masks.
• Stay inside during dust storms and close your windows.
• Avoid activities that involve close contact to dry dirt or dust, including yard work, gardening, and digging.
• Use air filtration measures indoors.
• Clean skin injuries well with soap and water to reduce the chances of developing a skin infection, especially if the wound was exposed to dirt or dust.
• Take preventive antifungal medication if your health care provider says you need it.
Valley fever is caused by fungal spores that become airborne, either from wind or soil disruption such as landscaping or construction work — and then inhaled. Most people don’t get sick. But for immunocompromised people, the risk of developing symptoms is higher.
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 a lifetime of health problems, and even death.
Kern County is valley fever central. Arizona typically has a great number of cases, but Kern has more per capita: Despite having one-12th of Arizona’s population, Kern had a third the number of that state’s diagnosed cases in 2016. The wet winter of 2016-17 will likely accelerate the growth of valley fever spores, and our ever-hotter, ever-drier summer will likely sweep more in the air.
All the more reason to defend yourself.
The lecture would be a good place to start. It’ll be held in the SJCH Conference Center at 1524 27th St. Or watch the noon lecture online: The Californian will livestream the event on bakersfield.com.