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State data: 2017 could be worst year for valley fever in decades

VF billboard

A billboard put up by the Kern County Public Health Services Department alerting residents to the symptoms of valley fever, which is frequently diagnosed as something different.

State public health officials suspect cases of valley fever, the insidious respiratory disease endemic to Kern County, have increased so far this year by at least 34 percent statewide — which could make it the worst year for valley fever in the disease’s recorded history, according to new data released Monday.

California Department of Public Health officials estimate that through Oct. 31, at least 5,121 people have acquired coccidioidomycosis, or cocci for short, better known as valley fever. 

CDPH officials say that by the time those cases are confirmed — a process that typically takes until spring or early summer — the numbers generally drop, but the figures don't take into account the cases that are tallied from October through December, when most diagnoses take place. 

Last year, CDPH suspected there to be 3,827 cases statewide at the end of October, but that number surged to 5,372 confirmed cases by the spring — the highest since the state began recording cases.

"We’re seeing more cases statewide. What that means for us in Kern County is hard to tell," Kern County Public Health Services Department Senior Epidemiologist Kim Hernandez said, hinting at the weeks-long incubation periods for valley fever and the lag time it takes for those infected to get diagnosed by doctors, which makes accurate and timely tracking of the disease difficult.

In Kern County, CDPH officials suspect 1,855 cases, a 30 increase over the same time last year, and a 70 percent surge over suspected cases in 2015. There isn’t another California county that has more suspected cases, data show. Los Angeles had second most, with 681 suspected cases, and Fresno third with 558 suspected cases.

If the trend continues and confirmed cases rise, it would mark the third year in a row that cases in Kern County have risen. Experts cannot identify the reason why.

"The kind of general feeling is yes, we think there’s going to be an increase in cases compared to last year," Hernandez said.

Valley fever, the common name for Coccidioidomycosis (or cocci for short), can be acquired by the simple act of breathing. It’s caused by a fungus that grows in loamy desert climates throughout the southwestern United States. When that fungus gets disturbed in the soil, often through agricultural tilling and construction, fungal spores can get swept into the wind and inhaled.

The majority of people who have valley fever — roughly 60 percent — don’t get sick, but others develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and extreme fatigue that can last months. In rarer cases, the spores can spread to the bloodstream and lead to a lifetime of health issues, sometimes resulting in death.

“With an increase in reported valley fever cases, it is important that people living, working, and traveling in California are aware of its symptoms, especially in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast, where it is most common,” said CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith. “In these areas, anyone who develops flu-like symptoms, such as cough, fever, or difficulty breathing, lasting two weeks or more, should ask their health care provider about valley fever.”

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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