Valley Fever

Arizona’s silent epidemic: valley fever

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports most cases of valley fever appear in people who either live or have traveled to the southwestern part of the United States, especially Arizona and California.

Arizona accounts for 60 percent of valley fever cases nationwide according to a report by the Arizona Department of Health Services.Valley Fever Map

In 2011 there were 16,472 cases of valley fever statewide.

One thing you can count on during Arizona’s monsoon is dust storms.

“This is the season when exposures can be higher because of the fact we start to get true dust storms,” said Dr. Christopher Finlay, Scottsdale Healthcare Primary Care Tempe.

This time of year, Finlay said he sees a lot more valley fever cases.

You cannot catch valley fever from someone who has it because it comes fungal spores in the soil.

“We are always on the watch out maybe a week or two, maybe three weeks after one of those dust storms that we see people that come in with cough and fever and so on, symptoms that they might have if they have valley fever,” said Finlay.

Common symptoms of valley fever include:

• Cough
• Headache
• Fever
• a rash on the chest
• muscle aches
• joint pain.

Those symptoms may sounds similar to what you would expect if you had the flu or a bad cold, making valley fever even harder to diagnose.

“Most people when they get valley fever just don’t get sick enough to sort of seek treatment or know that they had something other than a regular chest infection,” said Finlay.

Because of that, Finlay said, it is the fifth most cause of community acquired pneumonia in the valley, both in Phoenix and in Tucson.

However in extreme cases, the infection can spread from the lungs to the rest of the body causing much more severe conditions, such as meningitis or even death.

“I see a couple of those at least every year. The last one I had was actually last spring it involved a mountain biker who had been out in the desert a lot near the McDowell Mountains and caught it probably sometime while he was mountain biking. And we had to treat him for a number of months,” said Finlay.

Most often there is no treatment, only in these rare cases.

Besides dust storms, those living near on-going construction can be at a higher risk for developing valley fever.

“If you think about how Phoenix has changed in the last 15 years. Construction sites are an absolute risk for possibility of valley fever exposure because you are literally taking soil and disturbing it,” said Finlay.

Anyone can get valley fever, including children. However, it is most common in older adults, especially those 60 and older. People who have just moved to a new area, where valley fever thrives, are also at a higher risk for infection.

The CDC outlined certain groups who are at a higher risk for developing the severe forms of valley fever:

• African Americans
• Asians
• Women in their 3rd trimester of pregnancy
• People with weak immune systems, including those with an organ transplant or who have HIV/AIDS

About Jennifer Wietelman