Health & Medicine

Valley fever numbers jump in SLO County — and more people are dying

Cocci spherules, the fungus that causes valley fever, are seen under a microscope. The county is seeing record numbers of valley fever cases this year.
Cocci spherules, the fungus that causes valley fever, are seen under a microscope. The county is seeing record numbers of valley fever cases this year.

San Luis Obispo County has seen a huge jump in the number of valley fever cases reported in the first half of this year and six people have already died from the disease, matching the total for all of last year.

In the first half of 2018, the county recorded 283 cases of valley fever, compared with 91 cases in the first half of last year, according to the county Public Health Department.

Health officials are concerned because the 368 local cases in 2017 were the highest number on record and because case counts typically increase in the second half of the year.

“This increase is similar to patterns emerging across the state,” county health officials said in a statement. “In light of this increase, the Public Health Department reminds residents to be aware of the risk of valley fever, take precautions to protect themselves, and seek medical attention if needed.”

Valley fever (2)
Dust storms like this one that blasted Fresno in June 2012 can carry millions of spores from the fungus that causes valley fever. In the first half of 2018, more than 280 cases of valley fever have been reported in San Luis Obispo County, which is caused by a type of fungus in kicked-up dust. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Bee file photo

Valley Fever is caused by breathing in a fungus that lives naturally in the soil in parts of California and the southwest. When the soil is disturbed — often by wind, construction, gardening, biking or other activities — people can breathe in the spores from the fungus and develop valley fever, health officials said.

“People most commonly come in contact with the fungus in dusty air during the dry, windy summer months, and are often diagnosed in the second half of the year,” the agency stated.

“The fungus that causes valley fever is here in SLO County soil, and we all need to be aware of the risk,” said Dr. Penny Borenstein, health officer of the county of San Luis Obispo. “If you have a cough, fever, exhaustion and painful breathing for more than two weeks, tell your doctor and ask to be tested for valley fever.”

Morro Bay resident Casey Velte contracted valley fever and received medical treatment in 2016. He was temporarily hospitalized in Madera. Stephanie Velte

More than 60 percent of people who become infected with valley fever do not experience any symptoms and do not need treatment, but around 30 to 40 percent of people develop sudden flu-like symptoms, according to the department.

Most people will get well withing weeks, but 1 to 5 percent experience spread of the disease throughout the body and risk death.

Those who are at higher risk include people with compromised immune systems (including people with HIV/AIDS, people currently on chemotherapy, women who are pregnant, and others) and people of African and Asian-Pacific descent.

People are advised to limit exposure to dust and airborne dirt and avoid areas with a lot of kicked up dust, especially on windy days.

Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune