A recent study by UC Irvine researchers makes a grim prediction: by 2100, a warming climate will allow Valley Fever to expand throughout much of the western United States.
Even now, the fungus is almost certainly more widespread than the recorded cases. Researchers estimate that only 60 percent of infected people show symptoms. Some studies estimate that a quarter of community-acquired pneumonia in Arizona are actually Valley Fever. That means tens of thousands more people may be infected with Coccidioides immitis without knowing it.
Increasing infections will have health and financial impacts. A recent cost-of-illness study estimated that the average lifetime cost for a person diagnosed with Valley Fever approaches $94,000. For the 7,466 Californians who were diagnosed with Valley Fever in 2017, that will total nearly $700 million over their lifetimes.
On New Year’s day 2012, Rob Purdie of Bakersfield woke up with a pounding headache that would not go away. Two courses of antibiotics and headache medication did nothing to help and, for weeks, Purdie could do little but lie in bed in a dark room. “It consumed my life. Twenty-four hours a day for six weeks, I had one thing on my mind and it was how bad my head hurt,” he said.
Finally, a lumbar puncture confirmed that he had meningitis caused by Valley Fever. He thinks he might have picked up a spore doing yardwork in his backyard. He was put on strong doses of antifungal drugs and eventually required a port on his head to directly deliver the drugs into his brain. Some of the antifungal drugs have made his skin more sun-sensitive so he’s also had to deal with several bouts of skin cancer, and he will likely require the drugs for the rest of his life.
“What I want people to know is, if you live or travel though the Southwestern United States — Vegas or Arizona or Bakersfield or L.A. or wherever — you’re not going to travel through that part of the country without potentially coming in contact with Valley Fever,” said Purdie.
Harrowing stories like Purdie’s are raising awareness of the need for more research into Valley Fever. The disease carried on specks of dust is finally gaining attention from state officials. Last year, California approved $8 million to boost Valley Fever research and outreach, of which $3 million will go toward research across the University of California system, including the work in Sil’s lab.
“Valley Fever is very much a growing problem, and we need to be able to counteract it more effectively than we can now,” said Sil.”We have a long way to go before we’re at that point, but we hope that the knowledge we uncover will lead to new strategies to fight these infections.”