Discuss as:

Valley Fever on rise in Southwest, CDC says

A nasty fungal infection that can spread to the lungs or brain and cause lifetime symptoms is on the rise in the Southwestern U.S., federal health officials reported on Thursday.

Cases of Valley Fever, known medically as coccidioidomycosis, have increased nearly 10-fold between 1998 and 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

“Cases in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah rose from 2,265 in 1998 to more than 22,000 in 2011,” CDC said in a statement.

"Health-care providers should be aware of this increasingly common infection when treating persons with influenza-like illness or pneumonia who live in or have traveled to endemic areas," the agency says in its weekly report on death and disease.

Valley Fever causes at the most mild-flu-like symptoms in most health people, but the fungus can spread and take hold in unlucky victims, requiring a lifetime of antifungal drugs and sometimes even surgery to removed growths of fungus.

“More than 40 percent of patients who get ill from Valley Fever may require hospitalization at some point, with an average cost of nearly $50,000 per hospital visit,” CDC says.

The infection is caused by a fungus called Coccidioides. It lives naturally in the soil, and becomes airborne when dirt or sand is disturbed. Winds can carry the spores far aloft, and people breathe them in unknowingly.

“Because fungus particles spread through the air, it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure to this fungus in these hardest-hit states,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement.

“It’s important that people be aware of Valley Fever if they live in or have travelled to the southwest United States.” Antibiotics or antiviral drugs will do nothing to help treat a fungal infection.

CDC and state health officials checked disease surveillance data to see if cases were on the rise. They found that cases of Valley Fever went up 16 percent a year between 1998 and 2011 in Arizona and rose 13 percent a year in California.  More than 90 percent of cases are reported these two states.

“It’s difficult to say what’s causing the increase,” said Dr. Benjamin Park, chief epidemiologist  at CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch. “This is a serious and costly disease and more research is needed on how to reduce its effects.” It might be that people are just noticing and reporting it more, or perhaps weather changes are helping to stir up the spores, CDC said.

CDC says 30 percent to 60 percent of people who live in a region where the fungus is entrenched will breathe it in at some point. An estimated 150,000 people are infected every year but many don’t know they have anything other than a cold, and they get better on their own. The elderly and other people with weakened immune systems, such as HIV patients, are especially vulnerable.

According to the University of Arizona, 60 percent of those infected don’t suffer any symptoms, and another 30 percent have just mild to moderate infections. But 5 percent to 10 percent suffer complications, and 1 percent of victims die.

If it does spread, it’s usually to the skin, where it can cause purplish bumps that turn brown.

In people who develop pneumonia, the fungus can form nodules that cause no symptoms but which can look like lung cancer on an x-ray. A very few patients can also develop what are called cavities in the lung, which can cause chest pain and difficulty breathing. They require surgery to fix.

If it spreads to the brain or spinal cord it can cause meningitis, a potentially deadly condition that requires immediate treatment.

Related:

Fungus-infested bagpipes sicken lifelong player, 78

Norovirus: Why washing hands isn't enough