TUCSON, Ariz. – The powerful dust storm that swept across Maricopa County last week likely will produce a large increase in new Valley Fever infections over the next two to three months, an expert at the University of Arizona predicts.
John Galgiani, MD, Director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said such an increase in cases occurred following a similar huge blow in California’s Central Valley. Years ago, a Santa Ana wind storm blew dust from the Central Valley as far north as the San Francisco Bay Area. Kern County in California, like Maricopa County, is heavily endemic for the fungus that causes Valley Fever. As published in a medical journal, that storm resulted in 120 extra Valley Fever infections in Kern County, mostly in the subsequent two months. (Pappagianis D. “Tempest from Tehachapi takes toll or Coccidioides aloft from afar.” Western Journal of Medicine, 129:527-530, 1978).
“Because Maricopa County has ten times the number of people and three times the proportion of the population susceptible to first Valley Fever infections, we should expect 3,600 additional Valley Fever infections in Maricopa County for a total of 5,000 infections in July and August,” Dr. Galgiani said.
Public health officials and other medical professionals recently raised the concern that Valley Fever infections would increase as a result of the July 5 wind storm. By using the past experience in California as a guide, Dr. Galgiani points out that we can estimate just how large that increase may be.
“People living in Phoenix and the surrounding areas should know about this risk and seek medical attention if they develop symptoms of pneumonia during that time,” Dr. Galgiani said. It would also be important for the medical community to be on heightened alert for the possibility of Valley Fever in their patients with new illnesses. Early diagnosis and management should reduce the overall severity of the infections.
Valley Fever is a fungal infection that develops after inhaling a spore that is released from the dirt by wind or other disturbances. Many individuals experience no illness and become immune. Others develop a pneumonia-like illness, joint pains, rashes or severe fatigue. A small number of people experience severe – even life-threatening – spread of the infection from the lungs to other parts of the body.
The UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence was established in 1996 by the Arizona Board of Regents for the benefit of the entire state. Based at the UA College of Medicine in Tucson, the center has developed a research base including all three of the state’s universities and an information program for both the scientific community and the general public.