A new article in Discovery magazine by Rebecca Kreston details the history of the dreaded Valley Fever, a pneumonia-like infection caused by an airborne fungus that lies dormant in the soil until it is released by digging or plowing.
I have only heard about Valley Fever in relation to local agriculture, but Kreston’s article reveals that the disease has been the scourge of archeologists for centuries (Indiana-Jones types, beware!), and may have even affected indigenous populations in the Americas. Prisoners and other people living in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys are affected too:
As prison officials have been debating this summer on just how and where to move thousands of men at the greatest risk of infection, both geographically and genetically susceptible, an epidemic of valley fever that affects nearly 20,000 people every year silently continues. And for those infected – archaeologists or prisoners or Indians living a millennium ago – the illness can be as unrelentingly ruthless as the San Joaquin Valley, as imprisoning as the Avenal State Prison (Kreston).
A report on Valley Fever in California’s wine country (CBS News)
Mammals can also come down with Valley Fever, so it’s possible to pick it up from livestock or pets, although that doesn’t happen often. Many people have been exposed or even carry the fungus, but only about 50% will get sick (“Coccidioidomycosis Deaths,” PMC). Since I have asthma, I’m wary of the dust that seems constantly in the air around the farms near Highways 1, 183, and 156 nearby, and always make sure to roll up my windows in the car when I drive by. I also wonder how fracking and other oil-drilling activities impact the Valley Fever situation. While I love the bounty of produce and farmers markets in this area, Valley Fever seems to be one of the prices we pay for our billion-dollar agricultural economy.
* Valley Fever Survivor (practical information from a survivor)
* Coccidioidomycosis Deaths, United States, 1990-2008
* Valley Fever Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments (WebMD)