A rainy start to 2017 means the San Luis Obispo County health department expects to see more cases of valley fever, which is already to blame for two local deaths this year.
The two were among 30 cases of valley fever that have been reported since Jan. 1, according to Ann McDowell, an epidemiologist with the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department.
Valley fever is caused by a fungus called coccidioidomycosis, or cocci for short. The fungus grows as microscopic spores in the soil. The fungus is endemic, or native, to many areas of the southwestern United States, including San Luis Obispo County.
The infection is contracted by breathing in the fungus spores, which become airborne whenever dirt and soil are stirred up, such as during farming or construction, but could even be contracted by driving down a dusty dirt road. When the rain falls, the fungus starts reproducing and proliferating in the soil. When the soil dries out and gets disturbed, more people inhale the spores, causing more cases of valley fever.
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“We expect to see more cases this year due to the rains,” McDowell said. “Seeing all these cases is not that unusual.”
In 2016, there were 228 cases of valley fever — a jump from 54 cases in 2015 — and five deaths. Last year also saw more rainfall in the county than in recent years.
According to the county, more than 60 percent of those infected either have no problems or exhibit flu-like symptoms. The remaining 30 to 40 percent who develop symptoms will experience a sudden onset of mild to severe flu-like symptoms and will recover without treatment. Valley fever can be treated with antifungal medications, but there is no vaccine for it.
Between 1 and 5 percent of cases will develop the more serious, disseminated form of the disease. Though valley fever usually stays in the lungs, the disseminated version spreads to other parts of the body.
The disease is fatal in less than 1 percent of cases, officials said.
People at risk of getting very sick or dying from valley fever tend to be frail, McDowell said. Those include the elderly, the very young and people with a condition that weakens their immune system. For instance, a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy or a diabetic would be more susceptible to a serious form of the disease.
People of Hispanic, Filipino, Native American and African-American descent also have a higher risk of getting a serious form of valley fever.
According to the county Public Health Department, symptoms of valley fever include:
▪ Chest pain
▪ Shortness of breath
▪ Body aches
▪ Joint pain
▪ Skin rash
▪ Night sweats.
Symptoms of disseminated valley fever include:
▪ Extreme fatigue
▪ Very high fever
▪ Nodules or ulcers on the skin
▪ Swollen, painful joints
▪ Painful lesions on the skull, spine or other bones
▪ Headaches and/or back pain, due to infection of the brain or spinal cord.
Here’s how you can limit your risk of getting valley fever, according to the state Department of Public Health:
▪ Stay inside and keep windows and doors closed when it’s windy outside, especially during dust storms.
▪ Keep car windows shut while driving.
▪ If you must be outdoors during a windy and dusty day, consider wearing an N95 mask or respirator.
▪ When working or playing in an open-dirt area, wet down the soil before disturbing it to reduce the amount of dust.
The health department asks anyone who believes they may have valley fever and who is experiencing flu-like symptoms that haven’t improved over several weeks to go to their health care provider, a clinic or a hospital for evaluation and testing for the infection.