Deadly ‘Valley Fever’ fungal infection outbreak sparks fears of US endemic

‘It just goes to show you how serious of a disease it is if doctors seeing it think the first thing I have is cancer,’ 24-year-old says

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 01 February 2023 18:38 GMT
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Related video: Climate Change Could Drive Potentially Deadly Valley Fever Cases

US health experts are raising alarm about a rise in cases of a deadly fungal infection dubbed “Valley Fever”.

While the vast majority of cases of the infection are reported in the southwest of the US, the disease looks to be spreading, and the climate crisis may be to blame.

Devin Buckley was diagnosed with the disease after initially starting to feel ill in February 2018.

“It blew my mind that something so serious could be not known,” the 24-year-old told NBC News. “When I first got diagnosed, the word cancer was going around with some of the doctors – like they were screening me for that. So it just goes to show you how serious of a disease it is if doctors seeing it think the first thing I have is cancer.”

The illness is caused by breathing in spores from the fungus coccidioides. The spores are usually undisturbed in the ground but can be uprooted by construction, wind, or walking.

The fungus is endemic to the Southwest with 97 per cent of all cases of Valley fever being reported in Arizona and California, the California Department of Public Health states.

A study published in the journal GeoHealth estimated that the range of Valley fever could reach the border with Canada before the end of the century because of the changing climate.

Study leader Morgan Gorris told NBC that “as the temperatures warm up, and the western half of the US stays quite dry, our desert-like soils will kind of expand and these drier conditions could allow coccidioides to live in new places”.

In 2019, around 20,000 cases were reported, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying that this is probably an undercounting.

Symptoms of the little-known and often misdiagnosed disease include fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, and muscle aches.

The medical director of the Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical in Bakersfield, California, Dr Royce Johnson, told NBC that “if you see a patient with pneumonia, that either lives in the Southwest or has travelled to the Southwest, then Valley fever needs to be in what we call the differential diagnosis, meaning it’s one of the things that we have to think about”.

The CDC states that the infection can prompt severe lung issues in between five and 10 per cent of cases.

Mr Buckley has been on a ventilator three times since being diagnosed.

“The ventilator was on 100 per cent at one point. It was breathing for me,” he told NBC. “They were telling my mom, prepare for me not to be here.”

Some patients have to take antifungal medications for months or sometimes years, with possible side effects including hair loss, chapped lips, and dry skin.

Vaccine development has been going on since the 1960s, the CDC states.

A vaccine for dogs has been developed with possible approval by the Department of Agriculture set for 2024.

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