A potentially life-threatening fungal illness is rapidly spreading throughout central California, state health officials report.

The number of Valley Fever cases rose eight percent in 2018 from the previous year – up to more than 8,100 from more than 7,500, according to a report released by the California Department of Public Health last week.

The increase from 2016, when cases totaled around 5,700, was even more shocking – an sharp spike of 42 percent.

Kern County, which is about 133 miles from Los Angeles, was hit the hardest by far, documenting a little more than 3.000 cases – up 23 percent from 2017 and 48 percent from 2016.

For me, this news is both unsurprising and disturbing. The most common way to contract Valley Fever is by inhaling Coccidioides fungus spores found in dusts and soil. A dear friend, a robustly healthy young woman, spent a year battling this disease via a combination of anti-fungal medicine, nutritional experimentation, and will-power. We suspect she picked up the virus while we were all camping together outside of Los Angeles, and I shudder to think what could have happened if my son caught the disease.

Neighboring Kern County has been hardest hit, with 9 recorded nine deaths in 2017. This is the second-highest number since the county started keeping track of cases in 1992 and the highest number in over a decade.

Los Angeles County reported 973 cases of Valley Fever last year. Los Angeles County Public Health officials could not speculate as to the exact location of exposure, but based on environmental surveillance data and individual case reports, officials stated that the disease is also endemic to Los Angeles County soil.

Statewide, the number of reported cases quintupled from about 816 cases in 2000 to more than 4,000 cases in 2012. During that period, a total of 1,098 death records listed coccidioidomycosis as a cause, averaging 78 deaths annually, according to state public health data. Since then, Valley Fever cases have continued to trend up and state health officials have yet to pinpoint the exact cause.

In fact, a new medical study is looking for volunteers in Kern County to improve the treatment of Valley Fever.

Symptoms of Valley Fever mimic the flu or colds and can include a rash. They appear 1-3 weeks after exposure and can last for months. Between 5 to 10% of people who get Valley fever will develop serious or long-term problems in their lungs. The fungus can also spread to the brain and skin, causing abscesses and occasionally death.

Of course, because this is California, our green justice warriors are hot to blame climate change for this development.

The combination of California’s high exposure, high social and economic vulnerability, and the world’s upward trend of carbon pollution means the health harms of climate change are accruing faster than the state can respond. For instance, our new issue brief finds that:

– The majority-Hispanic farm workers who help drive California’s $50 billion agriculture industry are particularly likely to experience heat-related illnesses and deaths, water shortages during drought, and a climate-sensitive fungal infection called Valley fever.

I will just point out that between the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and our former governor’s race to embrace the Paris Climate Accord, the state’s climate should be preventing such catastrophes.

Hopefully, the researchers will find a cure quickly, as climate solutions to this problem will not be nearly as effective as medical ones.


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