Heavy rain from Tropical Storm Hilary, storms from Jova and flooding from monsoon moisture have doctors on high alert in the Desert Southwest for a disease outbreak that can turn deadly if not caught.
Valley fever, or Coccidioidosis, is a fungal infection. Humans and pets can get it just by inhaling dusty air. Fungus spores grow in dirt and soil and become airborne when wind, construction, digging and earthquakes disturb the soil. Wind carries the spores to noses and mouths. The spores thrive in the rain and multiply, according to notes in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
"Sometimes after rains, you will see an increase in valley fever, infections, primarily in patients who are outside doing things in the dust of the desert," Dr. Vincent Devlin, Immunologist and Allergist told FOX 11 Palm Springs.
Historic summer rain
Palm Springs, California, is still cleaning up after receiving a year's worth of rain in just days when Tropical Storm Hilary tore through.
More than 64,000 of Burning Man festival attendees were stranded in the Nevada desert after an inch of rain soaked the desert sands. The dirt roads were impassible.
This summer's heat wave bakes the ground and dries out the soil. Thunderstorm winds blow the spores around.
Valley fever rare but can be deadly
Sometimes, people with the fungal infection have no symptoms. For others, it is life-threatening. FOX News correspondent Marianne Rafferty nearly lost her three-year-old son to the illness.
"There was a time right around the time he was diagnosed when we were not sure if we would walk out of the hospital with our son or not," Rafferty told FOX Weather. "My son ended up with massive brain swelling and a condition called hydrocephalus."
They were living in New York then, and doctors were unfamiliar with the disease, usually seen in the southwest.
"So two years go by, and the fungus is just running rampant in his system. And he got extremely ill," Rafferty recalled. "The shunt that they had to place in order to drain his brain fluid properly had failed. So when they took it out, the doctor said, 'this thing's covered in fungus of some sort, and we've got to test it and figure out what this is.'"
The doctor told Rafferty that he had only heard about valley fever in medical school but had never seen a case. The fungus went through her son's central nervous system and was thriving. After multiple brain surgeries, an infectious disease doctor diagnosed the valley fever.
Symptoms of valley fever
Symptoms are nausea and vomiting, flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, difficulty breathing and aches. The disease is responsible for 15% to 30% of community-acquired pneumonia across Arizona, according to the Center for Disease Control. Doctors many times treat for a bacterial infection in that case. On x-rays, the disease can mimic lung cancer.
Even doctors who recognize and test for the disease can have issues.
"It's primarily concentrated in the southwestern part of the United States, Arizona and California. It's recently been recognized, though, a little further north in the state of Washington," Dr. Brad Perkins, Chief Medical Officer for Karius, told FOX Weather last year. "The challenge is really that the diagnostics for this test for this disease are not very good."
In 2019, the CDC recorded 20,003 cases of the disease. Research shows that valley fever causes or contributes to about 200 deaths in the U.S. a year.
"Nauseous, dizzy, no equilibrium, hard to concentrate," Bill Whitten told FOX 11 his symptoms the two times he contracted the disease. "And that lasted about a week. But the dizziness and the queasiness and all that lasted probably about five weeks, six weeks."
Simple treatment if caught early
Whitten was treated with antibiotics. Rafferty's son was treated with an antifungal medication.
"You've got to take it every single day," Rafferty said of her now 12-year-old son. "And he'll be taking that for the rest of his life. But it keeps the valley fever from coming back because in his case, because it was all over his body, it's it lies dormant."
The pre-teen still has the shunt in his brain. Rafferty considers him lucky.
"And we've been very, very lucky because there are many cases where it doesn't get diagnosed in time and people end up with major problems, paralyzed or needing transplants," she continued.
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The CDC estimates that the Coccidioides fungus lives as far north as Washington state and as far east as Texas.