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Number of Valley Fever Cases Increasing in Southwest U.S.

A fungal respiratory infection known as Valley Fever has dramatically increased in several southwestern states according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports that the total number of confirmed cases in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah is 22,000.

Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis) is caused by inhaling a fungus called Coccidioides, which lives in the soil in the southwestern United States. Although not everyone who is exposed to the fungus will get sick, those who do succumb typically experience flu-like symptoms that can linger for weeks or even months. And more than 40 percent of patients who get ill from Valley Fever may require hospitalization at some point, at an average cost of nearly $50,000 per hospital visit.

A CDC spokesman said that Valley Fever is causing significant health problems for many people living in the southwestern United States because fungus particles spread through the air. Although it is difficult to avoid exposure to Coccidioides, people who are at higher risk should try to avoid breathing in large amounts of dust if they are in endemic areas. The CDC is releasing information about the disease to alert individuals who live in or have travelled to the southwest United States.

The recent increase in cases of Valley Fever could be related to changes in weather, which potentially impact where the fungus grows as well as how much of it circulates. More research is necessary in order to understand why the number of reported cases of Valley Fever has increased. Between 1998 and 2011, Arizona and California had average increases in Valley Fever incidence of 16 and 13 percent per year, respectively. The CDC has provided grants to these two states to study Valley Fever.

During this time period:

  • Nearly 112,000 cases of Valley Fever were reported from 28 states and Washington, D.C.
  • Sixty-six percent of cases were in Arizona.
  • Thirty-one percent were in California.
  • One percent was recorded in Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.
  • Approximately one percent was made up of cases from all of other states combined.

“It’s difficult to say what’s causing the increase,” said Benjamin J. Park, M.D., chief epidemiologist with CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch. “This is a serious and costly disease and more research is needed to reduce its effects.”

The common symptoms of Valley Fever are very similar to those associated with the flu or pneumonia:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Rash on upper trunk or extremities
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain in the knees or ankles

Symptoms of advanced coccidioidomycosis include:

  • Skin lesions
  • Chronic pneumonia
  • Meningitis
  • Bone or joint infection

A lab test is the only way to determine whether or not any given illness is actually Valley Fever. Also of note…not everyone who gets Valley Fever needs treatment. For most people, in fact, the infection will go away on its own. More at risk are people who develop severe infections or chronic pneumonia. People at risk for the more severe forms of the disease are the young, old and infirm. For these groups, early diagnosis and treatment is important.

In many cases, treatment for coccidioidomycosis is not necessary, as symptoms can spontaneously resolve. Nevertheless, many healthcare providers prescribe antifungal medications, such as Fluconazole, to prevent a more severe infection from developing. It is especially important for people at risk for severe disease, such as those infected with HIV or who have weakened immune systems, to receive treatment as quickly as possible. If you suspect you may have Valley Fever, see your healthcare practitioner.

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