Before walking into the parent resource center at McKinley Elementary School, Classy Gray didn’t know much about valley fever, the insidious respiratory disease that annually infects thousands throughout the southwestern United States.
A Los Angeles native, the extent of Gray’s knowledge of the disease, along with many other parents, was that valley fever was something akin to a common cold.
“Doesn’t it have something to do with the respiratory system?” she asked.
Others knew the disease was serious, but were unaware of how the disease is transmitted. They didn’t know the symptoms, or that they could come on fast with little warning. Many bought into the old myth that if anyone growing up in Kern County is likely immune.
That all changed Friday, after the Valley Fever Americas Foundation hosted an hour-long education session at McKinley that taught parents what valley fever is, how to identify symptoms, and warned them of the dangers of misdiagnosis. It’s part of an ongoing awareness tour volunteers have been carrying out throughout Bakersfield City School District parent resource centers to raise the profile of the orphan disease.
“Valley fever is not something you need to be scared about, but you need to be knowledgeable,” Sharon Borradori, a volunteer coordinator with the Valley Fever Americas Foundation, told parents.
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by windborne spores that people inhale. Most don’t get sick. But for immunocompromised people, the risk of developing symptoms is heightened. 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.
The foundation’s awareness campaign comes during a critical year for cocci, as the disease has infected more people in California last year than ever recorded. Meanwhile, rising cases and increased attention have resulted in two Central California legislators writing six bills this month to address issues related to the disease.
Despite all this, awareness of the disease among those living in high-risk areas remains a problem. At the start of Friday’s presentation, half of those in the room had a friend or family member who had battled the disease, but were unaware of how it was contracted or the serious complications that could arise when the fungal spores spread throughout the body.
Awareness of the disease is critical, Borradori said, because studies show that the likelihood of those infected getting an accurate diagnosis — and as a result, better treatment and health outcome — increases when they’re aware of the disease before getting tested.
She pointed to a map of the United States colored in varying shades of green, noting the most severe areas from lightest to darkest.
“Where are we?” she said, pointing to Kern County on the map. “Dark green.”
It elicited some worry among parents when compounded with this reality: there’s no way to completely protect yourself against the disease, “unless you stop breathing,” Borradori said.
“A minute ago, we were telling you the fungus eats you from the inside out. That’s scary,” Borradori said. “But the good news is that 60 percent never develop symptoms.”
For the other 40 percent, however, the results could be devastating. Paul Solis, a 28-year-old disease survivor first diagnosed in 2007 who spoke Friday, knows all too well.
He was placed on voriconazole, an off-label drug, which produced rare side effects that immobilized Solis. He wound up in a wheelchair and spent years in and out of hospitals as doctors scratched their heads over the cause. It wasn’t until a doctor told him to stop taking his valley fever medication that he began to regain mobility.
Such is the danger of the antifungal medications used to treat valley fever. There isn’t one that has been specifically designed for the disease and nearly all of those regularly prescribed off-label come with side-effects.
“The more people know about it, the easier it is for us to fundraise money” for vaccine and medication projects, Borradori said.
The session was a welcome education for those in attendance, some of whom had connections to people who have developed the disease, but whose knowledge of it was steeped in myth.
“I’ve been told if you’ve lived here and were born here, you can’t get it,” said Celia Sanchez, a McKinley parent who moved to Bakersfield from Mexico. “The way I see it now, that’s not the case.”
Rosalyn White said she attended the session because, ever since moving to Bakersfield from Los Angeles, she started hearing about valley fever. Her husband, a barber in town, had two clients — an agricultural worker and an oil field employee — who got sick, she said.
“It just came all of a sudden and they didn’t know what it was until they were almost dead,” White said. “I had no idea how quickly it could come on. I’d never heard of this until I moved here.”