Valley Fever: Orphan Disease That Kills


PHOENIX, Ariz. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Researchers at the University of Arizona are studying a so-called “orphan” disease; that’s anything but rare in one part of the United States. Most people who get it are barely affected … others develop life-threatening symptoms, sometimes months later. A third of pneumonia cases near Phoenix and Tucson turn out to be Valley Fever, and even visitors are at risk.

Sheri Hill, her mom Jeannie Farrington, and her son Brandon are among the small percentage of people who got the worst form of Valley Fever.

“Later on, I developed a welt on my cheek, and that’s how we found out it was disseminated. This disease is much worse than people realize.” Hill explained to Ivanhoe.

Of 150,000 cases reported each year, 60 percent of infected people show no symptoms. Most of the rest get pneumonia-like problems, and about one percent get the disseminated form; where fungal spheres burst and spread spores into the lungs and bloodstream. That can cause welts or sores, sometimes months later.

“The fungus grows in the soil, and when things dry out, spores get out of the soil into the air. If you happen to inhale one of these spores,  you’ll become infected,” explained John Galgiani, MD, Director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. (Read Full Interview)

Dr. Galgiani just won a 2.2 million dollar grant to see if there’s a genetic reason why some people get so sick and if that could lead to a vaccine.

“It’s a part of precision medicine that you might be able to find some specific way of preventing that by intervening to supplement or to restore genetics in ways that are protective,” Dr. Galgiani told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Galgiani believes a vaccine is possible since so many infected people become immune. Sheri Hill just wants to make sure people learn the symptoms so they can get treatment quickly if needed.

Most cases of Valley Fever crop up near Phoenix and Tucson, but they’ve also shown up in New Mexico, central California, and parts of Texas and Utah.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Bruce Maniscalco, Videographer; Gabriella Battistiol, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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BACKGROUND: Valley fever is a disease caused by a fungus that enters the body through a person’s lungs. It can make someone feel as if they have a cold orthe flu, and may cause a rash. Most people can get better without treatment, but if a patient’s immune system is weak, Valley Fever can become deadly. It can spread from the lungs to other parts of the body. Those at higher risk include pregnant women, HIV positive patients, people who take medications that weaken the immune system, and patients with diabetes. Valley fever mainly occurs in dry, desert areas of the Southwest U.S., central California, Mexico, and dry areas in Central and South America. It is also known as San Joaquin Valley fever, desert rheumatism, or coccidioidomycosis. The fungus grows in soil, and gets into the air when the ground is broken and the dust spreads. People with jobs that require digging are also at higher risk, as are those who ride dirt bikes or ATVs in the desert. It is not contagious, it cannot be transferred from one person to another, or from an animal to a person. After getting it once, most people will never experience it again.

SYMPTOMS: Signs and symptoms of valley fever will be mild or few if any. They often occur one to three weeks after exposure, and resemble those of the flu. They can range from minor to severe, and include fever, cough, and chest pains. Those infected may also experience chills or night sweats, headaches, fatigue, joint aches, and red, spotty rashes. The rash that can occur from valley fever is made up of painful red bumps; these can turn brown later on. The rash will occur mainly on the lower legs, but occasionally on the back, chest and arms as well. Some patients may have raised red rash that actually blisters or erupts and looks similar to pimples. Some patients aren’t aware they were infected with valley fever until they receive blood work results, or nodules in the lungs show up on an X-ray. The nodules typically don’t cause problems, but can look like cancer on the X-rays. The course of the disease is highly variable, it can take months to fully recover, and fatigue and joint aches may take even longer to fade. The severity is determined based on multiple factors, including how many fungal spores were inhaled and a person’s overall health.


NEW RESEARCH: John Galgiani, MD, Director of Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, recently received a 2.27 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to research if there is a correlation genetically for why some people get so sick from valley fever while most others do not. With Steve Holland, MD, and Yves Lussier, MD, they will be specifically looking at the small category of people who develop disseminated coccidioidomycosis, the worst stage of valley fever, when the infection gets into the infected person’s blood and moves from the lungs to the joints, bones, even the spinal cord and brain. Recently, in an article written by Dr. Galgiani and Dr. Holland, it is noted that race/ethnicity, sex, pregnancy and immune status are all critical factors. This study will focus on genetics, if there is a gene mutation which can be an indicator for susceptibility to this serious version of valley fever.



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