Valley fever a threat in Tucson

By Raya Tahan

Arizona Daily Wildcat

For most people, valley fever is mostly a nuisance. However, the mysterious disease can develop into a fatal condition without warning.

"Valley fever is as common to the Southwest desert as cacti, yet it is one of the most difficult illnesses to prevent, detect and treat," said UMC official George Humphrey.

The fungus that causes the illness, called coccidioidomycosis, is found in the top six inches of the Sonoran desert's soil. The Sonoran desert reaches from southern California, through the Phoenix and Tucson areas, Sonora, Mexico and New Mexico to west Texas, said Dr. Robert Barbee, a UMC valley fever specialist.

The first case of valley fever was diagnosed nearly 100 years ago, Barbee said.

"The organism is similar to a virus or bacteria, but with a different life cycle," Barbee said.

About half of the population in the Sonoran desert is exposed to it at some time by breathing the air where the fungus exists. However, about 60 percent of those exposed do not develop the illness. In most people, exposure to valley fever builds an immunity, regardless of whether active symptoms occur, Barbee said.

Because the disease is not always active, skin and blood tests are used to determine whether a person has contracted it in the past.

In most victims who suffer symptoms, they are not serious, but resemble a viral flu with a fever, cough and fatigue. Some people develop a rash or joint aches. It lasts two to three weeks, Barbee said.

For about five percent of those who contract valley fever, it is incurable through medications or the body's natural immunity system. The fungus is then spread from the lungs throughout the body becoming a life-threatening situation. In some cases, the illness lasts for months and the sufferer is left with a scar on the lungs that may need to be surgically removed, Barbee said.

People at greatest risk of developing the disease include those who work in the soil. Agriculture, archeology, construction or gardening heightens the chances of inhaling the fungus, which is blown about in the wind. Even jogging on a windy day can expose one to the fungus if a particle is inhaled, Barbee said.

The amount of exposure to the fungus a person receives can relate to how severe the case will be. However, it is not contagious, Barbee said.

Dr. Janick Artiola, associate research scientist in the Soil and Water Sciences Department, said in his lab everyone working with soil must wear a mask, partly because of the risk of valley fever.

Certain segments of the population are more susceptible to developing severe symptoms including people with diabetes, AIDS, those who take high doses of cortisone or people with a weakened immune system, Barbee said.

Also, African Americans, Filipinos and pregnant women tend to suffer more serious symptoms, he said.

Those who recently moved to the Sonoran desert area, Barbee said, are more likely to contract the disease because they are newly exposed and are less likely to have developed an immunity.

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