Valley Fever (also known as Desert Rheumatism or San Joaquin Valley Fever) is Arizona’s disease. While rare at a national level, Valley Fever is common in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Every year, 150,000 people in the U.S. are infected, and Arizona is home to two-thirds of them.
If you live in—or ever travel to—Arizona, California’s Central Valley or other parts of the Southwest, you should be aware of Valley Fever. Here are five things you need to know:
1) It can be a serious respiratory health issue. While many people who are exposed to Valley Fever never show symptoms, those who do commonly experience coughing, chest pain, fever, headache, chills and fatigue. In serious cases, symptoms may last for months and can land people in the hospital. In an average year, 160 people die of Valley Fever.
2) It’s often missed or misdiagnosed. Because the symptoms mimic other respiratory illnesses, even doctors in places where the disease is common often forget to consider Valley Fever. Dr. John Galgiani, founding director of the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence (VFCE), and his colleagues found that a third of all pneumonia cases in Tucson are caused by Valley Fever. Other studies have found similar numbers in metropolitan Phoenix. The Arizona Department of Health Services advise patients with matching symptoms who have spent time in the Southwest to remind their doctors to check for Valley Fever.
3) It’s caused by a fungus. Coccidioides, a fungus that grows in the soil in places with low rainfall, hot summers and mild winter temperatures, is the culprit behind Valley Fever. The disease is not contagious, and people usually contract it by breathing in microscopic fungal spores in the air after the soil has been disturbed by wind or human activities. Construction, agriculture, gardening and other outdoor activities that stir up dust may increase your chances of inhaling the spores. But even without such exposure, people can become infected simply by living where the fungus occurs.
4) Animals get it too, especially dogs. Dogs comprise the majority of Valley Fever cases in pets, with Arizona dog owners spending an estimated $60 million annually on diagnosis and care. Livestock and some wildlife, such bats and coyotes, also can suffer from Valley Fever. Dr. Lisa Shubitz, an associate research professor in the UA School of Animal & Comparative Biomedical Sciences, is leading the effort to find effective and affordable treatment and vaccination options for animals.
5) Help is on the way. Although there’s currently no cure, there are a few drugs that show promise for treating Valley Fever in animals and people. VFCE is working toward federal approval to conduct clinical trials on a drug called nikkomycin Z (NikZ for short) that researchers believe may be a cure for Valley Fever. (Small studies with NikZ in dogs already have shown positive results and minimal side effects.) VFCE is also joining forces with Duke University to study whether the existing anti-fungal medicine fluconazole can help people with Valley Fever pneumonia.
In Arizona, it’s Valley Fever Awareness Week (observed annually during the second week of November), and this year the schedule of activities and learning opportunities has been extended well beyond seven days. Join us in raising awareness about this little-known disease and moving toward a future where Valley Fever is an easily treatable condition for humans and our animal companions.