Doctors have warned of dangerous fungal diseases spreading rapidly in many states


Doctors have warned of dangerous fungal diseases spreading rapidly in some parts of the country.

Doctors warn of a serious fungal disease spreading rapidly in some parts of the country, particularly affecting those who live in or visit the California and Arizona regions.

If you think it sounds like something from the cutting room floor of the "The Last of Us" series, where a parasitic fungal infection ravages humanity, there are some grassroots similarities.

Valley fever (also called coccidioidomycosis or "cocci") is an important cause of pneumonia, said Dr. Brad Perkins, chief medical officer of Karius, a company that provides advanced diagnostics for infectious diseases.

"This is a fungus," said Perkins, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official who led the anthrax bioterrorism investigation. "Bacteria cause most causes of pneumonia. They are fungi that live in the soil and breathe in dusty situations, whether it's a dust storm or around construction or excavation."

Valley fever and COVID-19 share many symptoms of cough, trouble breathing, fever, and tiredness. In rare cases, it can spread to other body parts and cause severe illness.

Animals, including pets, can contract valley fever by inhaling fungus spores from outside dirt and dust. However, it cannot be transmitted from one person or animal to another. There are about 200 deaths annually from the disease.

"These are mostly people with serious illnesses that lead to immune deficiencies underlying these infections," Perkins said. "It can be a devastating infection for these people. This is very rare, fortunately."

According to Perkins, prevention is a challenge. The risks are mostly associated with traveling to high-risk areas.

"People concerned about the risk of valley fever should try to avoid dusty situations, especially in the summer and at the height of the heat," Perkins stated.

You should also see your doctor if you develop signs or symptoms of pneumonia.

The CDC reports that the fungi that cause valley fever are Coccidioides immitis and Coccidioides posadas iii.

In the United States, scientists have detected C. difficile primarily in California and Washington. Posadas are found primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Southern California.

According to the CDC, Southern California, particularly southern San Joaquin Valley and southern Arizona, including metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson, has the highest rates of Valley fever. The disease is likely common in West Texas and along the Rio Grande River.

In California, state health officials said the number of reported Valley Fever cases had increased dramatically in recent years — tripling from 2014 to 2018. Most cases of Valley Fever in California (more than 65%) are reported from areas of the Valley Middle and Central Coast, the California Department of Health said.

Perkins has a word to the wise about the thousands of football fans who travel to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, for the Super Bowl to watch the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Philadelphia Eagles.

"If you're only flying to the airport, hotel, and the Super Bowl, you'll probably be fine," Perkins said. "If you're hiking in the desert, you may want to consider the risk of contracting Valley fever."

The Arizona Department of Health Services said 11,523 cases of Valley Fever were reported in the state in 2020. In all, 94% of the cases were reported in 3 counties — Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal, which are home to Phoenix and Tucson.

They feel better on their own within weeks or months. About 5% to 10% of people who get valley fever have serious or long-term lung problems.

"A lot of people are asymptomatic when they get this infection, so they don't have any symptoms at all," Perkins said.

However, infection is likely to be protective in the future.

"If you're one of the lucky ones who got infected and didn't show symptoms, you likely have some degree of protection in the future," Perkins adds.

If you develop symptoms, they look like typical pneumonia caused by bacteria.

"If you see a doctor, whether in the hospital or as an outpatient, they'll probably prescribe drugs for the bacteria that won't have any effect on these fungi," Perkins said.

Perkins adds that this is one-way Karius presents the need for a better diagnostic test for diseases like these, particularly in immunocompromised patients. A single diagnostic test by Karius, using a single blood draw, can determine if this is a bacteria or fungus of any kind, get the information they need to doctors, and get patients the right treatment more quickly.

Perkins said the increased number of cases is primarily related to people who immigrate to Arizona and California and travel there for leisure.

He adds that "many of these may be retired or elderly people who, one, have not had valley fever in the past, and two, maybe immunosuppressed with an increased risk of disease."

The climate crisis may also be to blame. As the heat increases, this may facilitate the multiplication of fungi in the soil in these areas.

"It's important to note that the entire western United States has some level of Valley Fever, but it's much higher in the Phoenix area of Arizona and certain parts of the interior of California," Perkins said.

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