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CBS47 Special Report: Valley Fever

Valley Fever is a condition that people living in our area have faced for generations, but it's on the rise.
Valley Fever is a condition that people living in our area have faced for generations.

Recently, portions of Central California has seen a rise in the dangerous disease.

Valley fever, known in the medical world as Coccidioidomycosis or cocci (coxy), is an illness that usually affects the lungs, but it can spread to other parts of the body, such as your bone, skin and brain, which can prove to be deadly.

As CBS47's Tony Botti shows us in this special report, quickly recognizing this disease is the key to getting cured.

Farming has been taking place in the Central Valley for more than a 150 years. For as long as there's been plowing and picking, there's been Valley Fever.

Doctor James McCarty of Children's Hospital Central California, has specialized in infectious diseases for 25 years. "Valley Fever is an infection caused by a type of organism that's referred to as a fungus or mold that grows in the soil here," said Dr. McCarty.

Dr. McCarty says Valley Fever is most prevalent in our southern region, like Bakersfield, Porterville, Visalia, Avenal and Coalinga. There is no clear answer as to why, but some speculate it has to do with weather patterns. "Particularly wet winter or wet spring followed by a long period of drought and that promotes the growth of the organism in the soil," said Dr. McCarty.

The doctor also shared some news that may surprise you. "Many people who live in the Valley will become infected with Valley Fever and their body will take care of it and they'll never know they had it. That's actually the majority," said Dr. McCarty.

A small percentage of people will become ill with flu-like symptoms, such as cough, fever, chest pain, muscle aches and a rash, which can last up to a month.

It remains a mystery, but for some reason, the groups most susceptible to catching Valley Fever are: Filipinos and African Americans. Pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are also at high risk.

Dr. McCarty says there has been a spike in the number of cases of Valley Fever and two children have died in the last couple of years.

In 2000, doctors at Children's Hospital treated just 4 cases of Valley Fever, but last year they saw 52. And in 2012, it's projected to jump to 95 cases.

Scott Workman is a Valley Fever survivor who caught the disease back in 1990. He believes he inhaled some spores when ripping trees out of his orchard, while building his home in Easton. I just couldn't throw all of the extra lumber on the trailer and I thought - something is wrong, I need to go in, I must have pneumonia or something like that," said Scott.

Three weeks later, a test revealed it was Valley Fever. "By then I had already lost 35 pounds. It wasn't unusual for me to sleep 22 or 23 hours a day at that time," said Scott.

Scott says his case was not a typical case. "One in a million in Caucasian males that it will actually spread outside the lungs. In my case it went into my skin and my lymph nodes," said Scott.

There were serious doubts whether he would live, but thankfully, antibiotic medicines stopped the spread. "I always seemed to have a peace about it. Our whole family did. I think through our faith and family that really helped us a lot in going through that struggle," said Scott.

Unlike cancer, which can disappear, then comeback, Scott can now say he's beat Valley Fever for good. "Doctors say I'm immune to it," said Scott.

So what precautions can you take to limit your exposure? You could wear a mask, but ask any farmer and they will tell you that's not practical. Kerman almond grower Paul Betancourt says on hot summer days, it's too uncomfortable to wear any extra gear. "The safety equipment is very, very warm," said Betancourt.

Betancourt worries more about being exposed to pesticides or getting injured by machinery than catching valley fever. "This one is such a long shot and to be zero risk for it would take so much effort. I think we just hope we develop immunities and if we don't, we'll deal with it later," said Betancourt.

Dr. McCarty says since no vaccination has been developed for valley fever, and there is no full-proof way to keep spores out of your respiratory system, his best advice is to lay low during dust storms, perhaps by staying in doors. "But at the same time we have to live our lives. It's pretty hard if not impossible to avoid dust living in the Valley," said Dr. McCarty.

Click the related link to learn more about Valley Fever.

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