A mysterious and dangerous lung infection with no known cure is quietly infecting thousands of men, women and children in America. The quiet killer destroys brain cells, causes strokes, seizures, painful stomach ulcers and horrific skin lesions. Doctors have no idea how wide spread the disease is: many cases go unreported or receive a wrong diagnosis. The statistics, as reported, are scary enough.
The American Lung Association defines cocci, also known as “Valley Fever”, stating, “Coccidioidomycosis (cocci) is an infection of the lungs caused by inhaling spores of the fungus Coccidioides immitis. This fungus is present in the soil of the southwestern United States including California as well as parts of Central and South America.”
When you are digging in the dirt, are you digging up more than you bargained for? Tillers of the soil, farmers, migrant workers, home gardeners, construction workers, horticultural workers and desert recreational users are among the many that regularly work with the soil and breathe the resulting dust. Lungs are infected when air containing the frightening fungi is inhaled. Persons with compromised immune systems, asthma, COPD or otherwise breathing challenged, are especially vulnerable. Smokers are at high risk.
In a July 5th, 2013 article, MSN reports, Valley Fever might be enough to scare you off moving to California. Officially called coccidioidomycosis, or cocci for short, it’s wreaking all sorts of havoc, including forcing the California Department of Corrections to move 2,600 Central Valley prisoners at high risk for contracting it to new digs. Doctors fighting the airborne fungal infection, which is especially prevalent in California and Arizona, describe hellish symptoms from skin lesions to stroke. It can also eat away bones and attack the brain. Winemaker Todd Schaefer, 48, thinks he contracted the disease 10 years ago while riding around on his tractor. Since then, he has suffered a stroke, a hole in his lung and near-fatal heart episodes. Not to scare you any more, but there is no known cure and incidents are on the rise with over 20,000 cases reported annually.”
Diagnosis of cocci is quite difficult as greater than 60 percent of persons who are infected with the fungus, develop no symptoms. In others, multiple symptoms may include a rash, headaches, body aches, weakness, chest pain, joint pain, fever and cough. Hard to diagnosis, and difficult to treat, cocci is an insidious predator, lying dormant in the soil until disturbed. If you breathe the dust in the desert you may by suffering from this mysterious malady and not even know it: desert gold prospectors who use a dry washer are especially susceptible, as are off-road four-wheel riders, ATV and motorcycle riders who all enjoy their hobbies in a whirl-wind of dust.
The Center For Disease Control (CDC) advises, “Coccidioidomycosis, also known as Valley Fever, is a common cause of pneumonia in endemic areas. At least 30% – 60% of people who live in an endemic region are exposed to the fungus at some point during their lives. In most people the infection will go away on its own, but for people who develop severe infections or chronic pneumonia, medical treatment is necessary. Certain groups of people are at higher risk of developing severe disease. It is difficult to avoid exposure to Coccidioides, but people who are at higher risk should try to avoid breathing in large amounts of dust if they are in endemic areas.”
The Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona is one of the few medical facilities in the United States especially equipped to help victims of the infectious fungi. The Mayo Clinic advises, “the Mayo Clinic provides the Phoenix area’s only multidisciplinary approach to treating Coccidioidomycosis (cocci), often referred to as Valley Fever. The Cocci Clinic includes physicians from many specialties who collaborate with one another to ensure the disease is effectively managed.” Specialties represented in the Cocci Clinic include:
Any patient infected with cocci can be seen at the Cocci Clinic. Referral would be appropriate for:
- Routine follow-up in managing the disease.
- Difficulty in diagnosis when test results fail to give clear-cut answers.
- Poor response to standard treatment and medications.
- Patients at risk for complicated or disseminated infection.
- Contraindicated for standard treatment (i.e. medication interaction, pregnancy, allergies, treatment-induced toxicity).
- Immune system issues such as transplant recipients, those undergoing chemotherapy and rheumatology patients.
The American Lung Association (ALA) advises, “Anyone living or traveling in the Southwest United States should be aware of cocci and suspicious of flu-like symptoms — fever, aches and pains, and a cough. These may disappear in a day or two without treatment. But they might indicate serious illness such as flu or cocci. Check with your doctor to make sure.”
The CDC reports, “Coccidioidomycosis is under public health surveillance, and is reportable – meaning the physician needs to report it to public health authorities – in 15 states. In 2010 there were over 16,000 reported cases of coccidioidomycosis, the majority of which were located in Arizona and California.”
The ALA notes, “If you have flu-like symptoms, you will probably be told to rest. Your doctor may recommend treatment for symptoms such as cough and fever. If you have the more severe form of the disease, a variety of drugs are now available to treat it. Occasionally surgery is recommended to remove a diseased portion of the lung, bone, or skin.”
Clearly, this is a disease not “to mess with” and immediate medical attention should be sought if symptoms manifest. Prompt medical intervention can help to lessen the onslaught of the infection.
By: Marlene Affeld
United States Center For Disease Control