PULLMAN, Wash. – A fungus found in semiarid parts of the Southwest that sometimes launches a lethal illness has been identified for the first time in Washington state soil, leading public health officials and an internationally known fungal expert at Washington State University to believe the organism is quietly spreading to the Northwest.
Valley fever occurs when the soil-dwelling Coccidioides fungus, or “cocci,” becomes airborne, releasing invisible spores that get inhaled and lodged in the lungs of humans and certain animals, especially dogs. Sixty percent of people exposed don’t fall ill; however, 150,000 face ailments ranging from flu- and pneumonia-like symptoms each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the most severe form, cocci spores break from the lungs and cycle through the bloodstream, setting up infections that destroy bones, cause skin abscesses and inflame the brain. The CDC estimates it kills 160 people annually.