California Rains Raise Valley Fever Risk. Here’s What You Should Know.

The California Department of Public Health recorded 9,280 new cases of Coccidioidomycosis or “Valley Fever” last month, marking the highest number of cases ever documented by CDPH. The increase prompted a state health care advisory that urges medical personnel to be on the lookout for symptoms of the disease.

What is Valley Fever?

Valley Fever was first detected in California’s San Joaquin Valley back in the 1800s. It’s an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides. The illness — which can affect both humans and dogs — takes hold when the spores are inhaled and begin colonizing the lungs. Most people will experience little or no symptoms. Others become extremely ill with cough, fever or headache. A prolonged illness can lead to skin lesions, meningitis and even death. 

The symptoms are similar in dogs. A dry cough, lack of appetite, and lethargy are most commonly seen in canines. But the illness looks different if it becomes chronic. As the fungus spreads through the body, it may affect the joints, resulting in lameness. Infection can also occur in the eyes or brain, resulting in ocular issues or behavior changes.

Rainstorms to Blame 

California’s wet winters are almost certainly to blame for the steep rise in Valley Fever cases. During rainstorms, the fungi spread through the soil. Once the earth dries out, the spores lie in wait. All it takes is heavy winds, an earthquake or construction to kick contaminated dirt into the atmosphere where it can be inhaled. 

The alternating pattern of wet and dry weather in the state has created the perfect storm. University of California climate scientist Daniel Swain told Grist that Valley Fever “is going to become an increasingly big story.”

Who is most at risk?

Valley Fever cases have always been highest in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions. However, “climate change may be impacting the distribution and burden of Coccidioides within California,” according to CDPH. Rates are now increasing in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and in Southern California, which suggests that the disease is expanding to more regions. 

How the disease impacts a person or animal largely depends on the strength of their body’s immune system. For that reason, individuals who are immuno-compromised or pregnant are at increased risk. Data suggest Black and Latino populations are also dispraportionately affected by the disease. 


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