Corey Schubert winces a bit as he describes how he felt while suffering from valley fever.
“It’s the worst thing, ever,” the Gilbert resident said. “It is really nasty stuff.”
Valley fever is caused by the fungus coccidioides, which grows in soils in areas with low rainfall, high summer temperatures and moderate winter temperatures.
That’s a relatively small area in the United States – Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties; the San Joaquin and Central valleys of California; southern Nevada; southern New Mexico; west Texas; southern Utah; and southeastern Washington. It also occurs in northern Mexico and parts of both Central and South America.
In Arizona, every person in one of the affected counties has a 3 percent chance every year of being exposed to valley fever.
“But, you’re not constantly exposed,” said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. On average, it takes 12.5 years of living in Arizona to be exposed enough times that you might become infected.
A diagnosis of valley fever means a fungus is growing in your lungs. When someone inhales the spore and it sticks to their lung and grows, they get valley fever.
Schubert blames himself for picking up the spores. He believes he became infected when he went outside during “a giant haboob” in July 2011. He was toting his garbage and recycling containers to the curb and now realizes he should have waited for the dust to clear first.
Although it was nearly seven years ago, he remembers the evening well.
“There was dust in the air. It was starting to swirl,” he said.
In October, three months after the dust storm, Schubert got really sick.
Although familiar with valley fever, “it never clicked to me that I had it. I thought I was having a heart attack,” Schubert said.
Another month went by and he still wasn’t feeling well, and then “all hell broke loose in my lungs,” Schubert said. He felt bad enough that he left work one day and went home to rest. The pain in his chest and arms got so bad he couldn’t even pick up the remote control for his TV. He also remembers experiencing shortness of breath.
“It was like an elephant was on my chest,” he said.
He waffled about what to do next, finally called his wife and headed to a hospital.
After several tests, the doctors determined he wasn’t having a heart attack, but found his lung had what they called a “white out.” Assuming it was pneumonia, he was given drugs to treat that. But antibiotics don’t help valley fever.
“I remember thinking the phrase ‘white out’ was cool. It was like a blizzard happening inside me,” Schubert said.
About 5,000 new cases of human valley fever are reported every year to the Arizona Department of Health Services. That’s about half of the approximately 10,000 cases reported annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But, officials believe more people actually contract valley fever than is reported. It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of people who are infected with the fungus either have no symptoms or experience flu-like symptoms and don’t seek medical care.
Complicating the incident numbers, about one-third of the people who do seek medical attention for valley fever are not properly diagnosed, Galgiani said. Misdiagnosis is common because valley fever is prevalent in a such a small region. Many doctors have never heard of it and don’t realize they should order a blood test to check for its presence, he said.
In response to that concern, Sonora Quest Laboratories recently decided to offer a patient-ordered test for valley fever. Testing for valley fever has existed for years, but the blood test previously had to be ordered by a doctor. People can now order a lab test for valley fever at Sonora Quest Laboratories without a doctor’s order.
Schubert wasn’t recovering in spite of the antibiotics, so he visited a pulmonologist, who prescribed an antifungal medicine to treat the real problem.
He was given the drug most commonly used to treat valley fever, fluconazole, but it was no walk in the park. Schubert said he felt like his stomach was getting torn apart by the medication. The pills discolored his teeth and “ripped” his stomach up.
“It’s worse than valley fever,” he said of the antifungal medication.
Fluconazole inhibits the fungus but doesn’t cure the disease, Galgiani said. So, if a person’s immune system doesn’t take over, they may have to stay on the drug forever.
There is no way to prevent valley fever, short of moving out of the regions where it exists. But not everyone or every animal exposed to the mold contracts the disease. Likewise, not everyone who contracts valley fever gets sick, Galgiani said, and many don’t require any medical treatment because eventually their immune system takes over and cures the disease.
Schubert has learned his lesson and won’t go outside in any sort of dust storm.
“I see people out all of the time in dust storms,” he said. “I understand that, but I would highly recommend whatever you’re doing could wait. I really wish I hadn’t spent those couple of minutes outside.”
– Contact reporter Shelley Ridenour at 480-898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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