Coccidioidomycosis is typically found in the Southwestern United States, as well as parts of Central and South America; however, since 2010, a total of nine human cases of Valley Fever have been reported from Yakima (4), Benton (3), Franklin (1), and Walla Walla (1) counties in Washington state.
In addition, soil samples collected from areas where the people might have been exposed were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for analysis. The results came back positive for the fungus.
This has prompted the Washington State Department of Health, the CDC and local health departments to collaborate on a study on “Valley fever”.
“Valley Fever” (coccidioidomycosis) is a disease caused by a pathogenic fungus (Coccidioides immitis) that grows in soils with specific environmental conditions. About 60 percent of people who are infected with Valley Fever never develop symptoms. The people who do have symptoms may experience mild flu-like symptoms with fatigue fever, and a cough that may be accompanied by a rash, headache, body aches, night sweats, or shortness of breath. A very small percent of people who become symptomatic may develop serious or longterm problems in their lungs. In even fewer people – about 1 out of 100 – the infection spreads from the lungs to other parts of the body, such as the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), skin, or bones and joints.
“We’re still learning about the fungus and its presence in our state, and we’ll continue studying it to better understand who is at risk,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said. “We’re working closely with our partners in local health agencies and at CDC to carry out studies this year.”
Although the risk in Washington is thought to be very low, anyone can get Valley Fever, even young and healthy people. Those at higher risk for severe illness include people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, people taking chronic corticosteroid therapy, and people of African or Filipino descent. People who work outdoors in jobs that generate a lot of dust may be more likely to be exposed to the fungus.
Preventing Valley Fever is difficult, since anyone who breathes the air where the fungus is present can be infected. However, people who dig or disturb soil containing the fungus might reduce exposure by wetting soil to keep dust down, and by using respiratory protection – although respirators are not proven to prevent infection, they may reduce risk. The best way to protect yourself is to know the symptoms of Valley Fever and if you have them, ask your doctor to test you. Antifungal medications are available, although most people will get better without any treatment. The infection can’t be transmitted from person to person or from animals to people.