Incidents of Valley Fever are up ten fold in the United States as people and developers push deeper and deeper into the desert.
While experts describe its impact as equal to that “of polio or chicken pox” for the “endemic populations” of states like Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, it goes largely unreported because its spread is isolated to the southwest portion of the country.
Writing in The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear says that “two thirds of all the country’s cases [of Valley Fever] occur in [Arizona].” And in 2012 “Valley Fever was the second most reported disease in Arizona.”
The disease is caused by “inhaling…microscopic spores of Coccidioides immitis (C. immitis), a soil-dwelling fungus.” In soil, C. immitis exists “in chains of barrel-shaped units” that “fragment into lightweight spores” once inhaled. These fragments are tiny enough “to reach the end of the bronchioles at the bottom of the lungs” and once they are there “we can’t breathe them out.”
Inside the lung the “spore circles up into a spherule…filled with a hundred or so baby endospores.” Eventually the spore fills to the point of bursting, at which time the endospores “[stimulate] and acute inflammatory response.” At the same time, the whole process starts over with each of the newly released endospores as they fill then burst, sending other endospores through “the blood and lymph systems.”
Dust storms like the 60-mile wide one that rolled into Phoenix on July 5, 2011, carry the fungus into the air for desert dwellers to breathe.
Follow AWR Hawkins on Twitter @AWRHawkins