Valley fever is the scariest disease you’ve never heard of

Symptoms can range from minor fatigue to flesh-eating infections

Topics: Valley Fever, Southwest, Disease, ,

A mysterious fungal disease is spreading through the American Southwest, and chances are you haven’t heard of it. Coccidioidomycosis, also known as cocci or valley fever is endemic to the region’s soil, as well as California’s Central Valley.

Symptoms can range from fatigue to devastating, flesh-eating infections, and despite efforts, no vaccine exists as of yet. The scariest part? Contracting this disease is as easy as taking a deep breath where the fungus’ spores are present. Since the dust particles are microscopic, not even masks can filter them out, making the disease virtually impossible to prevent. Cases of the disease have risen from about 2,000 in 1998 to over 22,000 in 2011, yet no major public health programs have been enacted to prevent its spread.

The Atlantic’s Madeleine Thomas wrote a fascinating article on the disease:

Most people never even know they’ve been exposed. Although once introduced cocci never truly leaves the body, about 60 percent of infections present no symptoms. Even then, however, there’s no guarantee of immunity. An infected patient will test positive for it for the rest of their lives, even if they never get sick. And severe stresses on the immune system, like cancer treatment or organ transplants, can cause symptoms to flare up decades after exposure.

The remaining 40 percent of infections resemble the flu, or result in painful boils that typically clear up following a few months of treatment. But for reasons still mysterious to doctors, a very small percentage of valley fever infections become brutal lifelong illnesses. There’s little understanding of why cocci targets some people more harshly than others, but the amount of spores inhaled, the strength of the patient’s immune system, and genetic predisposition all play a role.

While the National Institutes of Health page on valley fever notes that most cases will resolve themselves, for some unlucky patients, the infection will spread from the lungs and cause more serious illnesses, including meningitis, and occasionally resulting in death.



And not nearly enough is being done to stop the disease’s spread. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website warns that the disease has the potential to take lives, yet is unexpectedly vague about potential cures, focusing instead on programs to increase awareness while monitoring its spread. Even worse, the agency fears that the hotter temperatures associated with climate change could exacerbate the spread of valley fever, causing it to expand beyond the traditional southwestern “hot spots.”

The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism has published a series of powerful reports about people infected with valley fever, entitled ‘Just One Breath.’ You can access the stories here.

Joanna Rothkopf

Joanna Rothkopf is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on science, health and society. Follow @JoannaRothkopf or email jrothkopf@salon.com.

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