Quon Louey had lived in Bakersfield for more than a decade when he came down with what he thought was a common cold. He broke into cold sweats and suffered from vertigo and exhaustion. When he lay down, his room would spin. Store-bought medicine didn't help.
“For the first couple of weeks, I was just in denial, thinking I was tired – that I was just working too much and I'd get some rest and get better,” said Louey, who eventually visited a doctor. “They took an x-ray and found spots on my lungs.”
Louey had coccidioidomycosis, better known as valley fever.
He was one of 105 survivors who turned out Saturday for the fifth annual Valley Fever Awareness Walk at the Kern County Museum, an event created to raise awareness of the disease that last year infected at least 1,174 people in Kern County. Nationally, it left more than 3,000 dead between 1990 and 2008.
Valley fever, which has no cure, is contracted by the simple act of breathing. Fungal spores embedded in soil throughout the San Joaquin Valley, Arizona and other parts of the southwest get swept up in the wind. If inhaled, those spores could become lodged in the lungs and an immunity could be developed – the case for most. But for others, the spores take root and disseminate throughout the body's organs, leading to a lifetime of health problems.
Louey counts himself among the lucky ones. The fungal spores he breathed in about 10 years ago never disseminated. They never made their way into his brain, like they do for a slim minority of those diagnosed with valley fever.
That's what happened to Rob Purdie, a 43-year old father who in 2011 breathed in some spores during a period that experts refer to as “the second epidemic.” More than 2,700 people were infected that year in Kern County alone. Now Purdie must drive to Kern Medical Center twice a month where doctors inject an anti-fungal medication through a hole in his skull and into his brain.
Purdie's valley fever was initially misdiagnosed as meningitis. It was weeks before doctors tested for cocci, he said.
Experts and advocates say that early detection is key to beating valley fever.
Paula Einstein, daughter of pioneering valley fever doctor and researcher Hans Einstein, contracted the disease while in grade school. Her father recognized it immediately, she said.
“The first day, the first symptom, he said 'I know what it is,'” Einstein recalled.
That's not the case for everyone, though.
A low-cost skin test that's widely available would go a long way toward helping beat back the amount of devastation valley fever can cause, Einstein said. There's at least one antigen skin test on the market, Spherusol, developed by San Diego-based Nielsen BioSciences.
Meanwhile, development is underway for a promising drug that could eviscerate the cocci fungus in valley fever patients, said David Larwood, a chemist and son of Tom Larwood, another pioneering valley fever doctor and researcher who worked alongside Einstein.
That drug could make it to human clinical trials by next spring, Larwood said.
But even as scientists take steps forward with valley fever medically, experts and those impacted the most by valley fever say the best way to combat the disease is through awareness.
When they first notice symptoms, patients should insist their doctors test for valley fever immediately, especially if they’re seeing a physician outside of an endemic area. Many doctors are unfamiliar with the disease, and it often gets misdiagnosed.
“You're your own best expert,” Einstein said.