Valley fever cases in San Luis Obispo County have topped 200 this year and are expected to exceed the 260 reported cases in 2016 by year’s end, according to a county Public Health Department epidemiologist.
The county’s data was provided to The Tribune as the state recently reported 5,121 provisional cases of valley fever in California from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, 2017. Not all of those cases have been confirmed.
This year’s statewide data shows an uptick of 1,294 provisional cases from the provisional 3,827 cases reported during that same time period in 2016.
Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis —or cocci for short — is caused by the spores of a fungus that cultivates in soil in parts of California, Arizona, and other areas of the southwestern United States.
This illness is endemic in the Central Valley and Arizona, but it’s also found in San Luis Obispo County. Cases of infected residents from throughout the county have been reported, though more have been diagnosed among people living in the North County, said Ann McDowell, a county Public Health Department epidemiologist.
McDowell said Thursday the county has documented 203 confirmed cases thus far in 2017 and it’s investigating an additional 53 cases. The county also has reported five deaths due to valley fever, all which occurred in the first six months of the year.
“I think we could see more than 260 by the end of the year,” McDowell said. “We’re doing a lot of outreach to physicians and the community to make people aware of valley fever. It can be difficult to diagnose. The symptoms might not be that obvious.”
People contract valley fever by breathing in the dirt or dust in areas where the disease is common, inhaling the fungus spores when they’re spread through the air. Construction work, agriculture, excavation or other digging often kicks up the microscopic spores, and people can become sick if they inhale the dust.
The county’s 260 cases in 2016 were a dramatic spike over previous years (53 cases were reported in 2015). This year’s abnormally wet winter created prime conditions for the fungus, and the high number of infections have continued, McDowell said.
Common symptoms of valley fever include fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, night sweats, loss of appetite, chest pain, and muscle and joint aches throughout the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 60 percent of people who contract the disease either have no indications or only very mild flu-like symptoms and don’t visit a doctor, according to county Public Health.
The state Department of Public Health reported that “it is unknown why there has been an apparent increase in provisional valley fever cases in California in 2017.”
“With an increase in reported valley fever cases, it is important that people living, working, and traveling in California are aware of its symptoms, especially in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast, where it is most common,” said CDPH Director and state Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith in a statement. “In these areas, anyone who develops flu-like symptoms, such as cough, fever, or difficulty breathing, lasting two weeks or more, should ask their health care provider about valley fever.”
How to avoid valley fever
Though it can be difficult to avoid valley fever is areas where its prevalent, measures can be taken to avoid it.
The CDC advises people to stay away from areas with a lot of dust such as construction or excavation sites. Those who can’t should wear a N95 respirator, a type of face mask.
Other recommendations include staying inside during dust storms; minimizing or avoiding activities with close contact to dirt or dust, including yard work, gardening and digging; and using air filtration measures indoors and cleaning skin injuries well with soap and water, especially if the wound was exposed to dirt or dust.
The California Department of Public Health recommends training workers about the risk of valley fever and taking measures to reduce risk; developing a worksite plan to minimize the area of soil disturbed; suspending work during heavy winds; and using water or soil stabilizers to reduce dust.
Currently no vaccine exists to prevent valley fever.
Number of SLO County deaths due to valley fever by year
Source: SLO County Public Health Agency