‘It took everything’: the disease that can be contracted by breathing California’s air | California


The illness that would change Rob Purdie’s life started with a headache, a terrible pain that started around New Year’s 2012 and lasted for months.

It was only after several trips to emergency care facilities, multiple doctors, and misdiagnoses — everything from sinus infections to cluster headaches — that he discovered what was wrong with him.

The Bakersfield, California native had meningitis caused by Valley Fever, a disease resulting from: coccidioides, a fungus endemic to the soils of the southwestern US. Years of debilitating illness, difficulty finding effective treatments, and other hardships followed.

“It took everything — my health,” Purdie said. “It had a huge impact on my family. We have lost everything, all our financial security, our entire pension.”

The father of two is among the small percentage of people who develop severe forms of valley fever – most people don’t get sick after exposure and very few have serious symptoms. But for those who develop the chronic form of the disease, it can be devastating.

Valley fever is on the rise in California’s Central Valley, as it has for years, and experts say cases could increase in the American west in the future as the climate crisis makes the landscape drier and hotter.

Kern County, located just north of Los Angeles at the end of the Central Valley, has reported a significant increase in the past decade. The county, where Purdie lives, documented about 1,000 cases in 2014. By 2021, there were more than 3,000 cases, according to public health data.

Valley fever is on the rise in California’s Central Valley. For Bakersfield, California resident Rob Purdie, it would take years to get it under control. Photo: Lisa Mascaro/AP

Feeding the climate crisis

Valley fever testing and awareness has improved in recent years, while the province has grown, leading to more cases. But there’s also a significant increase in the disease, said Dr. Royce Johnson, the medical director of the Valley Fever Institute in Bakersfield.

“There’s a whole lot more Valley now. I can just see that at work,” Johnson said. “We think most of it has to do with the climate and the weather.”

The fungus that causes Valley always needs warm and dry conditions to survive, which is what the U.S. Southwest provides, said Morgan Gorris, a Earth systems scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has studied the relationship between climate crisis and Valley fever. has studied, or coccidioidomycosis.

“Much of the western US is already very dry. Looking at the climate change projections, we expect the western half of the US to remain quite dry and that will continue to support Valley someday,” Gorris said.

The fungus grows in the dirt like a filament, Johnson said, that segments and breaks off and becomes airborne when disturbed, traveling as far as 120 miles — it has even infected sea otters. People can be exposed to valley fever by digging in undisturbed soil or simply by breathing.

“Someone who lives in Long Beach and drives to the Bay Area and has their window turned to the 5 can get Valley Fever,” Johnson said. “If you do an archaeological dig in the foothills west of [Bakersfield] you can… you are basically on top of it.”

Farm workers stand bent over in a field of carrots.  In the foreground are piles of accumulated dirt.
Those who work outside the home, such as these farm workers in County Kern, are at greater risk for valley fever. Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

People who work outside the home are at greater risk. Last summer, seven firefighters responding to fires around the Tehachapi Mountains, southeast of Bakersfield, had breathing problems. Three were diagnosed with valley fever, according to an article published by the CDC.

About 40% of people develop a respiratory disease that Johnson says can be very mild, and 1% have more serious consequences. Most people will not get sick after exposure to the fungus, and of those who do, experts estimate that very few people are diagnosed with valley fever.

In the US, primarily in Arizona and California, about 20,000 cases of Valley Fever were reported to the CDC in 2019 and an average of about 200 associated deaths per year from 1999 to 2019, according to the most recent data available.

Research by Gorris and others has shown that the climate crisis could expand areas where valley fever occurs. In a climate-warming scenario with high greenhouse gas emissions, the area endemic to Valley fever expanded further north, reaching the US-Canada border in 2100, Gorris said of the study.

In a more moderate scenario with less warming and fewer emissions, there is less spread of the disease northward, she said.

“Reducing climate change could reduce Valley Fever’s health impacts,” she said. “It’s important to understand that it’s not all doom and gloom.”

In California, as the climate shifts to more intense periods of rainfall and then subsequent dry seasons, conditions in which Valley Fever thrives may have more cases, she added.

An aerial view of a dry field.  A tractor plowing the field produces a long cloud of dust that carries the wind.
The fungus that causes Valley Fever needs warm and dry conditions to thrive, which is what the US Southwest, such as California’s Central Valley, provides. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Raising awareness

Purdie got sick after one such period, a wet year followed by dry weather, he recalls. At the time, he lived on a few acres on the outskirts of Bakersfield, where he often spent time outdoors.

Valley fever threw his life into disarray. Purdie, then a financial planner, struggled to work and had to sell precious family memories to support his family while trying to control the disease.

Finally, he was able to find the right treatment, which required four pills a day and medication directly into his brain every 16 weeks. It is a difficult treatment that makes him seriously throw up, sometimes even to the point where he almost faints. Purdie sometimes has trouble interacting with people and having conversations.

But he has become an advocate for valley fever awareness and has been able to return to work. He works for the Valley Fever Institute as a patient and program development coordinator.

“I have a very severe case of Valley Fever,” he said. “The disease can be very frightening and very debilitating. But I don’t want people to be afraid of it. I want people to know about it.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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