One of the major epicenters of valley fever could be right in your backyard, and a Sun City West resident is doing her part to educate the public about the spread of the chronically debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

Pat White is a longtime advocate for those suffering from valley fever and is stopping at nothing to educate the public, government and health officials to control the disease’s outbreak and spread.

“This is my life. I did not choose this life; it chose me,” she said.

West Valley sand and gravel operations in the Agua Fria riverbed, along with hot summer temperatures, form a perfect combination for the spread of valley fever throughout the Sun Cities and Surprise, according to health officials.

While sand and gravel operations must adhere to certain air quality standards, White is joining the efforts of the Joint Environmental Task Force in the hope state environmental officials can tighten the standards even more.

White, who was diagnosed with valley fever in January 2006, blames the sand and gravel industry for contributing to the spread of valley fever, particularly seniors living in the Sun Cities near the Agua Fria riverbed and those whose immune systems weaken as they age.

White has been helping others deal with the everyday health, mental and physical struggles through a support group for West Valley residents.

Now in its fifth year, Arizona Victims of Valley Fever brings together individuals dealing with the disease in an open forum to discuss issues relating to their health and everyday activities. The goal of the nonprofit is to raise money in search of a cure for valley fever.

While White said she was unfamiliar with the term “valley fever” upon moving to the Valley several years ago, the Minnesota native and her family have learned about it the hard way.

Prior to the family’s move, White said her identical sister became ill after visiting Phoenix and, although she was originally misdiagnosed, doctors eventually discovered she had contracted valley fever. White’s mother also contracted the disease and was diagnosed correctly, but lost her battle with the disease several years ago.

White spoke Thursday afternoon at Faith Presbyterian Church to a large gathering of seniors from Sun City and Sun City West about the spread of valley fever.

Although two-thirds of all valley fever cases derive from Arizona, White said the spread of the disease is actually a regional problem affecting California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. Once residents leave these states, most doctors won’t know how to test or treat the disease, she said.

The worst outbreaks are during March through May and October through December. High endemic areas are in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, and symptoms can begin showing after a seven- to 28-day incubation period.

“Valley fever is hard to prevent, hard to detect and hard to treat,” White said.

An estimated 1,400 cases were reported in January and February alone. Last year, an estimated 9,700 people in Maricopa County contracted valley fever, up from 7,980 in 2009, according to state figures. The disease comes in three forms: acute, chronic and disseminated.

There is no vaccine or cure for valley fever, but White said medications can be used to keep the fungus at bay and from spreading. Valley fever isn’t contagious or transferable, although those suffering from the disease cannot become blood or organ donors.

Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or

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