Attack of the Killer Fungus

Bakersfield in a Windstorm

Bakersfield in a Windstorm

I have always felt that, as long as I’ve lived in the American Southwest, I’ve never wanted to live somewhere that had the word “Valley” in its name. After reading Dana Goodyear’s article entitled “Devil Dust” in the January 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, I find that I have better reasons for saying this than ever before. The culprit is a deadly fungus that dwells in the soil called Coccidiotes immitis, which causes a disease for which there is no cure called coccidioidomycosis, better known as Valley Fever:

C. immitis is adapted to lodge deep: its spores are small enough to reach the end of the bronchioles at the bottom of the lungs. We can breathe them in, but we can’t breathe them out. Once in the lung, the spore circles up into a spherule, defined by a chitinous cell wall and filled with a hundred or so baby endospores. When the spherule is sufficiently full, it ruptures, releasing the endospores and stimulating an acute inflammatory response that disrupts blood flow to the tissue and can lead to necrosis. The endospores, each of which will become a new spherule, travel through the blood and lymph systems, allowing the cocci to spread, as one specialist says, “anywhere it wants.” In people with weakened immune systems, cocci can take over.

Unfortunately, cocci, as it’s called, is endemic throughout the desert Southwest, as well as the desert portions of Central and South America. When there is  building, farming, clearing, or drilling activity, it gets stirred up and transported by the hot winds that characterize the deserts of the New World.

From 1998 to 2011, the Centers for Disease Control reported a 1,000% increase in the number of reported cases. The sad thing is that, because the more temperate areas are unaffected, there is less likelihood of a pharmacological solution to the disease. I’m sure that scientists in Europe and the Eastern part of the United States would prefer to find solutions to diseases that are much more widely disseminated.

So consider me a lifelong non-dweller in the valleys of California. I don’t care how cheap the housing is!