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California: Prisoners at Avenal and Pleasant Valley prisons demand move as valley fever death toll rises


Thousands of inmates at two California prisons may be transferred to other facilities, to avoid the threat of a condition known as valley fever.

On Monday a San Francisco court heard that since 2006, the potentially deadly infection, caused by an airborne fungus, had killed more than 30 prisoners and afflicted hundreds more at the Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, both in northern California's San Joaquin Valley. Eighteen of the deaths occurred in 2012 and January 2013 alone.

A lawyer representing inmates argued that 3,250 of the 8,100 inmates at the prisons ought to be moved immediately to prevent further deaths. The state, however, wants to transfer just 600 of those at most risk, while experts from the US Centers for Disease Control carry out tests to determine whether the dust that carries the deadly fungus can be reduced. The study is due to conclude by December. The judge is yet to make his ruling.

The fungus originates in the dry soil of the region where the two prisons are located, which has seen a significant rise in cases of valley fever in recent years. Between 1998 and 2011, the annual number of recorded infections in California rose from around 700 to more than 5,500. Only around half of infections produce symptoms, which for the most part resemble flu. In some instances, however, the infection spreads from the lungs to elsewhere in the body, causing blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and death. Studies suggest that black and Filipino prisoners are more vulnerable to valley fever than others in the state's overcrowded prison system.