Valley Fever among Arizonans continues to run high, according to the state Department of Health Services.
As of last week, there had been more than 12,000 confirmed cases of Valley Fever in 2012. In the most recent year-to-date report available, that’s far above the five-year median for January through November of 9,075 cases. During the same time period last year, there were 15,000 cases.
In fact, Valley Fever cases this year far outnumber influenza, whooping cough and West Nile virus combined.
State health officials predict there are many more cases out there because the illness can have minor symptoms.
“I think a lot of people who have Valley Fever do have mild symptoms and are infected and don’t realize it,” said Shoana Anderson, office chief for the Arizona’s office of infectious disease services, part of the state health department. “For all those people (confirmed with the disease), there are probably five to 10 people who have mild symptoms that don’t get picked up by providers.”
One shift has been in the type of people who get the disease, Anderson said. Historically, the disease hits men and older adults in their 60s and 70s. More recently, people of both sexes in their 40s and 50s have made up a majority of the confirmed cases.
Dr. Loreto Sulit of Mesa’s Banner Baywood Medical Center and Banner Heart Hospital said he isn’t surprised about the increase of cases and who is getting infected, especially given the size of the dust storms that have hit the Valley.
“It could be that people are being more educated and starting to ask their clinicians if Valley Fever could be a possibility. Sometimes people get cold-type symptoms and think it’s just a virus or bacterial when in essence they could have a not-so-serious (case of) Valley Fever. People who get diagnosed with Valley fever are pretty sick,” he said.
Sulit said testing has also changed.
“It doesn’t shock me that we see 30- or 40-year-olds are getting it vs. 60- or 70-year-olds. They’re just as susceptible as the older individuals. It could be the risk factors, too. Some people with compromised immune systems can get clinical Valley Fever more than others,” he said.
The state is still trying to determine why cases have increased and why there’s been a change in the people getting infected, Anderson said.
“We’re doing a lot of different things. Every time we do one study, we identify five more questions and only one answer,” she said.
Valley Fever is a lung illness that is caused by a fungus in the soil. It’s often stirred up by dust storms or haboobs, which have become common in the Valley during the last few summers.
“From the time you inhale the bug from the soil, it takes several weeks before you get symptoms. It can take a month or two,” she said.
Symptoms can include a nagging cough, fever and exhaustion. But the disease can also spread to the bones and skin, and even cause meningitis. The illness is not contagious and there’s no vaccine for it. Treatment includes anti fungi medication. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Valley Fever -- also referred to as “coccidioides” -- can also cause pneumonia.
“It’s hard for us to prevent people from breathing in the fungus from the soil,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the state has started to do interviews of people under age 25 who have a serious case of the disease to determine if there are some underlying risk factors that have not been identified in the past.
“Some people get really severe infections, even brain infections,” she said.
Valley fever numbers really jumped in Arizona in 2010, she said, possibly because of increased testing and surveillance.
What was also unusual the last few years is that Valley Fever numbers typically creep up in October, November and December, a few months after summer dust storms. Instead, there were high numbers of cases identified year-round. That trend has started to go back to more historical patterns, Anderson said.
Once a person has had the disease, he or she is likely immune for life, Anderson said. So it’s possible many Arizonans have been exposed to Valley Fever without being aware that was the illness he or she was suffering from.
“For about 60 percent of people, there is a mild cough or no symptoms so they don’t see a doctor,” she said. “People may have had it and didn’t recognize they had it.”