Valley Fever, Explained
Cases of an illness known as valley fever have increased dramatically over the past decade. So what is it exactly? And who’s at risk? We went to California’s Central Valley to find out—watch the video above, then read this handy FAQ.
What is it? Coccidioidomycosis—commonly known as valley fever—is a fungal disease. Its spores live in the soil. If the soil becomes dry and dusty, people and animals can breathe it in, allowing the spores to grow inside their bodies.
What does valley fever feel like? It depends. Some people who get valley fever don’t have any symptoms at all; in others the disease resembles a cold or flu. Some develop a pneumonia-like condition from the fungus in their lungs. In rare cases, the fungus disseminates and can even attack the brain. According to the CDC more than 40 percent of people who become ill from valley fever may require hospital visits; the average cost of that visit is $50,000. Between 1990 and 2008 there were 3,089 reported deaths from valley fever, though some public health experts suspect that it was an underlying cause of many more deaths.
Who’s at risk? People who live in or travel to the southwestern United States—where the disease is endemic—are at risk. Within that area, working outdoors—at construction sites, archaeological digs, and other places that involve undisturbed soil—also seems to be a risk factor (though plenty of people who don’t have outdoor jobs—for example, this little girl—also get valley fever). Prisons have been hard hit; 18 inmates in California’s Central Valley have died of valley fever in the past few years, and many more have become ill. The state of California recently ordered the transfer of 2,500 prisoners out of two Central Valley prisons with high incidence of the disease; many of the prisoners set to transfer are black and Filipino, two ethnic groups that seem to be disproportionately affected by the dangerous disseminated form of valley fever. Women in their third trimester of pregnancy and people with compromised immune systems are also at higher-than-normal risk.
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