Valley fever, the often harmless, yet sometimes deadly respiratory disease endemic to Kern County, killed six people and infected nearly 3,000 in Kern County last year, the highest number of diagnosed cases since 1992, local public health officials announced Wednesday.

The official number is a 27-year record, building on a four-year increase.

“Unfortunately, we are here today to announce that the number of new cases of valley fever here in Kern County has again increased,” said Matt Constantine, director of Public Health.

"In calendar year 2018, there were 2,937 Kern County residents diagnosed with valley fever," Constantine said at a press conference held Wednesday at the department's Mount Vernon Avenue headquarters.

"Although this is only a 7 percent increase from the previous calendar year, this represents the fourth year in a row of increasing cases in Kern County.

“And more importantly," Constantine said, "unfortunately this is the highest number of new cases to impact Kern County in 27 years, since 1992."

The number of confirmed cases is nearly triple the 1,013 cases recorded in 2014.

Kim Hernandez, epidemiology manager with Public Health, said 1992 still holds the local record, with 3,342 confirmed cases.

"We continue to see valley fever diagnosed more often in males than in females," Hernandez said. "In 2018, the incidence rate among men was 27 percent higher than among women.

"When we look at different age groups, we continue to see the largest number of cases in people 25 to 44 years of age. In 2018, this group accounted for 36 percent of our cases."

However, when she factored in population size, Hernandez found that people age 45 to 64 actually have the highest incidence rate. 

While many questions remain unanswered in the study of valley fever, one thing is clear: Kern County is ground zero for the disease statewide.

"Kern County residents regularly account for 30 to 50 percent of all cases in California," Hernandez said. "Our incidence rate is higher than any other county, by far."

Russell Judd, chief executive of Kern Medical, said Kern County is also a center for research into the disease, and the Valley Fever Institute at the county hospital is working to solve the mysteries that still surround valley fever.

"If valley fever was found in a big city or on the East Coast and the appropriate number of research dollars were put into it, we would have had a solution for this disease a very long time ago," Judd said.

County health officials said growing public awareness of valley fever and enhanced knowledge in the medical community may play a part in the increase in reported cases. But that factor is impossible to quantify.

Dr. Royce H. Johnson, the medical director at the Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical, said these numbers represent more than just statistics. Each number is a real person whose life was affected, whose ability to work and make a living may have been compromised, whose desire to care for their family may have been stymied.

"Valley fever is an ongoing saga," Johnson said. "It's not getting better; it's getting worse."

The hope is that further research will answer questions like:

• Why do some people suffer symptoms while others don't?

• Why is the number of people who become infected estimated to be 10 times the number of confirmed cases?

• Why do some people contract life-threatening symptoms?

Better drugs need to be developed to treat the disease, Johnson said. And he hopes a safe and effective vaccine will be found.

In the meantime, the health department has relaunched its public awareness campaign in response to the spiking numbers. The effort will include public service announcements on electronic billboards and in every local movie theater in Bakersfield.

But Kern Medical's Judd laid it out in language anyone can understand.

"If you have a fever and you have a cough and you live in Bakersfield," he said, "you should get a valley fever test."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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