Drought Could Lead To ‘Superblooms’ Of Valley Fever. What You Can Do Protect Yourself From The Disease.
Add another consequence to California’s ongoing drought: more dust that could contain the fungus that causes Valley Fever.
Researchers say the worsening drought is creating more of the dangerous dust. The disease comes from fungus in dirt and soil, and is endemic to the southwest and California, particularly the Central Valley. When the dust from the fungus is inhaled it creates a common respiratory illness in its victims.
It is thought that the fungus grows best after rain and once the soil starts to dry out is when it’s dispersed into the air. The drought could cause “superblooms” of the fungus, experts say, priming the landscape for outbreaks of Valley Fever in drier seasons.
Chain | Cohn | Clark for years has represented workers who contracted Valley Fever while on the job, and those legal claims are ever-increasing too, said attorney Jim Yoro, veteran workers’ compensation lawyer in California.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 150,000 valley fever cases in the United States each year, but most researchers say the number is much higher — closer to 350,000.
And cases are rising in California, according to the California Department of Public Health. Over 3,000 cases and 30 deaths were recorded in 2021 in Kern County, which is nearly triple the 2015 total, Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan shared.
California state legislators from Bakersfield were able to secure more than $8 million in state funding for a Valley Fever Vaccine Project. Additional millions of dollars have been earmarked for public health, research and a Bakersfield-based Valley Fever Institute.
The CDC recommends “common-sense methods” for discouraging Valley fever infections. They include:
- Avoid dusty areas such as excavation or construction sites. (If you can’t avoid these areas, wear an N95 respirator while you’re there)
- Stay inside during dust storms and close your windows.
- Avoid activities that involve close contact to dirt or dust, including yard work, gardening, and digging.
- Use air filtration measures indoors.
- Clean skin injuries well with soap and water to reduce the chances of developing a skin infection, especially if the wound was exposed to dirt or dust.
- Take preventive antifungal medication if your healthcare provider says you need it.
Learn even more about Valley Fever below.
WHAT IS VALLEY FEVER?
Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungal spore that is found in soils in the southwest United States, and in some areas of Central and South America. People get infected by breathing in spores contained in dust that gets into the air when it’s windy or when the soil is disturbed during activities such as digging, gardening and construction.
In many cases, Valley Fever does not make people ill, but some get flu-like symptoms that can last a month or more. Most who have flu symptoms recover fully, but others can develop severe disease, including pneumonia and infection of the brain, joints, bone, skin and other organs. Anyone who thinks they might have Valley Fever should see a doctor. A blood test can determine the disease, and doctors should be suspicious of Valley Fever in patients who live in the valley or have traveled through the area who have a cough that doesn’t go away after more than several weeks.
Valley Fever does not spread from person to person, and many people who are exposed to the fungus never have symptoms. Other people may have flu-like symptoms, including fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, headache, night sweats, muscle aches or joint pain, and rashes on the upper body or legs. Serious illness can occur, resulting in hospitalization, long-term disability, or even death.
Healthcare providers prescribe antifungal medication for some people to try to reduce symptoms or prevent the infection from getting worse. People who have severe lung infections or infections that have spread to other parts of the body always need antifungal treatment and may need to stay in the hospital.
VALLEY FEVER AS A WORK INJURY
Employers in affected areas can take steps to protect workers from breathing in the fungal spores that cause Valley Fever. These include controlling dust, providing worker training, and suspending outdoor work during heavy winds. It’s important for employers of outdoor workers to post resources for preventing work-related Valley Fever. Each year, more than 1,000 Californians receive hospital treatment for Valley Fever, and about eight of every 100 people hospitalized die from the infection annually.
Workers who dig or otherwise disturb soil containing the fungus are at risk for getting the illness. The fungus lives in the soil in parts of California, particularly the Central Valley. When people inhale the fungal spores released when the soil is disturbed, they may get Valley Fever. Some workers at higher risk for Valley Fever include wildland firefighters, construction workers, archaeologists, military personnel, and workers in mining, gas, and oil extraction jobs.
Here are some steps employers and employees can take to prevent the spread of Valley Fever:
- Determine if your worksite is in an endemic area.
- Adopt site plans and work practices that reduce workers’ exposure, which may include minimizing the area of soil disturbed; using water, appropriate soil stabilizers, and/or re-vegetation to reduce airborne dust; stabilizing all spoils piles by tarping or other methods; providing air conditioned cabs for vehicles that generate heavy dust and make sure workers keep windows and vents closed; suspending work during heavy winds; placing any onsite sleeping quarters, if provided, away from sources of dust.
- Employers must develop and implement a respiratory protection program in accordance with Cal/OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.
- Take measures to reduce transporting spores offsite, such as cleaning tools, equipment, and vehicles before transporting offsite; providing coveralls and change rooms, and showers where possible if workers’ clothing is likely to be heavily contaminated with dust.
- Train workers and supervisors about the risk of Valley Fever, the work activities that may increase the risk, and the measures used onsite to reduce exposure. Also train on how to recognize Valley Fever symptoms.
- Encourage workers to report Valley Fever symptoms promptly to a supervisor.
Employees who contract Valley Fever while on the job can qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.
WHO IS AT RISK
Anyone who lives in or travels to an area where the fungus lives in the environment can get Valley Fever, and it can affect people of any age, but it’s most common in adults age 60 and older. Additionally, certain groups of people may be at higher risk for developing the severe forms of Valley Fever, such as people who have weakened immune systems, as well as pregnant women, people who have diabetes, and people who are black or Filipino. Central Valley prison inmates have also been infected by Valley Fever at epidemic rates, contributing significantly to the state’s prison healthcare costs, and resulting in inmate deaths.
In areas where Valley Fever is common, like Kern County, it’s difficult to completely avoid exposure to the fungus because it is in the environment. And there is no vaccine to prevent infection. That’s why knowing about Valley Fever is one of the most important ways to avoid delays in diagnosis and treatment. People who have Valley Fever symptoms and live in or have visited an area where the fungus is common should ask their doctor to test them for Valley Fever. Healthcare providers should be aware that Valley Fever symptoms are similar to those of other respiratory illnesses and should consider testing in patients with flu-like symptoms who live in or have traveled to an area where Coccidioides lives.
Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical aims is to increase education and awareness for the public, patients and health care providers, and provide the patient care and promote research that includes epidemiology, clinical drug development, prevention, immunology and immunizations. Chain | Cohn | Clark in years past has joined the Valley Fever Institute at the annual Valley Fever Walk aimed at raising awareness of Valley Fever.
The Valley Fever Americas Foundation aims to promote awareness and raise funds to support promising academic and medical research on the fungus which causes Valley Fever, in efforts to produce a vaccine or a cure. There is currently no cure for the disease.
“Understanding the conditions in which Valley Fever is most likely to be contracted can prevent further suffering and loss throughout our community, and being familiar with its symptoms empowers victims of this disease to be diagnosed early and increase their chances of making a full recovery,” according to the foundation.
If you or someone you know is injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.