Fall in the southwest US means moderate temperatures and the start of a new growing season. Be it planting mums in your front yard or commercially-farmed lettuce fields, fall is the perfect time for digging in the soil. Unfortunately, the fungus Coccidioides thrives in the arid landscape of the southwest, resulting in the illness called Valley fever.
Valley fever, named from the San Joaquin Valley in California, is one of the most common infectious diseases in Arizona, with fungal spores spread by the wind or contact with the soil. It is also common in California. Valley fever, rarely deadly, affects residents and agricultural workers alike. Symptoms are like the flu: fatigue, cough, fever, headache, and rash. If the symptoms progress, the illness can spread to other parts of the body and lead to life-threatening meningitis. Patients with respiratory issues or suppressed immune systems are more susceptible to infection.
At least 44 workers installing solar farms in the San Luis Obispo County of California became infected with the disease. These workers were grading the soil, digging trenches, and working in the trenches. Most required taking time off work to recover, and two had complications. OSHA cited the construction companies for not keeping the workers safe by limiting exposure to high levels of dust.
In the last 15 years, cases of Valley fever have quadrupled. Periods of drought followed by heavy rains allow the fungi to grow and spread. The actual numbers of infected people far exceed reported cases since 40% don’t have any symptoms and most recover without medical attention. Early detection and treatment of Valley fever improves patient outcomes for severe cases. The increase in cases could be a result of more people traveling to warmer regions, the increase in agricultural production, and the construction of homes further out into the desert.
Schroeder, Michael. “The mysterious rise of Valley Fever.” Lifestyle. AOL News, 13 Nov 2015. Web. 15 Nov 2015.