Valley fever infected 5,372 people last year in California, the most in a single year since cases were made reportable in 1995, California Department of Public Health officials announced Thursday.
It’s an increase of more than 2,300 cases - a 71 percent spike over 2015. It's unclear how many died of valley fever because the CDPH doesn't maintain those records.
Roughly 40 percent of reported cases came from Kern County, where valley fever killed six and infected 2,310 people in 2016, according to the Kern County Public Health Services Department. It’s an incidence rate of about 262 cases per 100,000 people. The state incidence rate hovers around 13.7 per 100,000.
“People who live in or travel to areas where valley fever is common should take steps to avoid breathing in dusty air,” CDPH Director and State Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a news release. “If they develop flu-like symptoms, such as cough, fever or difficulty breathing lasting two weeks or more, they should ask their doctor about valley fever.”
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungal spore that grows in arid soil in the southwest United States. When the fungus is disturbed, oftentimes through construction, agricultural tilling or wind, it can be swept into the air and inhaled.
For some, it can lead to extreme fatigue, fever, chills, muscle pains and a cough. In more rare cases, the fungus can spread to the bloodstream and lead to death.
There's no vaccine, no cure, and no state funding for awareness or research.
Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, introduced AB 1279 this year, which would streamline reporting guidelines, which lack consistency between counties and, as a result, don’t give a full picture of the disease’s impact.
Because valley fever’s symptoms are similar to the flu, it is often misdiagnosed for pneumonia or tuberculosis. Most infected people show no sign of illness, but African Americans, Filipinos, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone immunocompromised are at greater risk of becoming ill.
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.
CDPH officials said Thursday that they were unsure why there’s been such a large increase in reported valley fever cases, but that changes to testing, diagnosis and reporting patterns could play a role.
Experts have long theorized that weather patterns lead to increases in cases. The fungus grows when wet winters stretch into February, then stirs into the environment during dry summers.
Citing dry conditions, doctors in Kern County are preparing themselves for more cases this year.
“We’re just waiting at the hospital for a whole bunch of cases,” said Dr. Olva Meave, a third-year resident physician at Clinica Sierra Vista who does rotations at Kern Medical Center, adding that a colleague in Lamont treated a 2-week-old infant who tested positive for valley fever this month.
“Whoever’s exposed to this spore and is around here will get it,” Meave said. “Just by living here, the risk increases.”
This story was changed July 21 to reflect that $3 million was cut from AB 1279 and that cases spiked 71 percent between 2015 and 2016.