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Valley fever uptick demands attention

Government Response to Valley Fever

Fellowship Story Showcase

Valley fever uptick demands attention

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta
Monday, April 1, 2013

The Bakersfield Californian Editorial Board

We've seen significant progress over the past few years in the quest to bring attention to valley fever, the pulmonary fungal infection that has disrupted -- and taken -- so many lives in the southern San Joaquin Valley and throughout the southwestern United States. What we haven't seen is significant progress in actually treating the illness. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued last week, shows that the incidence of valley fever cases is up an astounding 850 percent over the past decade-plus.

How the rapid rise in valley fever cases has not meaningfully piqued the interest of the medical science community outside of the geographic areas most affected is an open question.

But perhaps that's changing. Spurred in part by an extensive and collaborative public health reporting series by a number of media organizations, including The Californian, the Atlanta-based CDC published in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report a list of findings that mirrors what the Reporting on Health Collaborative series found.

Those numbers, and their devastating impacts, are well known to health officials, patients and their families in the most heavily affected areas. What's significant is that the CDC may be ready to launch a major offensive against this vastly underreported and frequently misdiagnosed illness.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is transmitted when fungal spores that are present in dry soil are inhaled. This happens most often when that soil is whipped up by winds or disturbed by construction activity. The disease can run a mild course that might seem as simple as a cold, or it can be highly debilitating, even fatal.

In areas where it is most common, valley fever cases are up more than 850 percent over a 13-year period. In California, reported cases rose from 719 in 1998 to 5,697 in 2011. Kern County reported nearly 50 percent of those cases -- 2,734, up from 596 just two years earlier. But valley fever is out of control in Arizona, which reported more than 16,000 cases in 2011. Most cases are mild and go unreported so the actual numbers are almost certainly much higher.

A statement of awareness by the CDC, the nation's most influential and powerful public health institution, is a welcome development. But the other half of the equation, developing effective treatments including a vaccine, remains unrealized. The medical science community must move forward in that regard with a sense of urgency, but it can only do so with a significant commitment of funding.

Public and media attention is frequently riveted on other "diseases du jour, " even when, as is common, the statistics pale in comparison to valley fever. Consider West Nile virus, which has dominated media news cycles for extended periods in recent years. According to the CDC, West Nile virus occurred in 5,387 human cases in the U.S. in 2012 (December excluded), 243 of which were fatal. Conversely, some health experts estimate 150,000 annual cases of valley fever nationwide. Kern averaged 12 valley fever deaths per year until 2007, when the CDC stopped tracking that number -- an indication of just how far off the radar the disease had become.

With greater awareness finally taking hold in Atlanta, perhaps aggressive research and treatment modalities will soon follow. We're counting on local leaders, including those in Congress, to make sure it does. How the rapid rise in cases of the disease has not meaningfully piqued the interest of the medical science community outside of the geographic areas most affected is an open question.

Photo courtesy of Nrbelex

About This Series

This project results from an innovative reporting venture – the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative – which currently involves the Bakersfield Californian, Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, Hanford Sentinel, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, La Estrella de Tucsón and the Center for Health Journalism. The collaborative is an initiative of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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