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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!


3 thoughts on “Attack of the Killer Fungus

  1. I’m a bit puzzled because of two reasons:

    1) There are lots of places where you can catch this disease that aren’t valleys, no matter what its name is.

    2) There are many, many reasons you wouldn’t want to live in the San Joaquin that have nothing to do with Valley Fever. For example, what the place smells like in the winter when the whole place is covered with fertilizer. (I’m sure you can think of other reasons.)

    • Bill has a point here: I suppose my association of the disease with valleys is that, in California, that’s where most of the agriculture takes place — and post of the pesticides are used. And the San Joaquin Valley is the the number one locale in the state for both agriculture and the disease.

  2. Like most residents of Tucson, Arizona, who have been here for more than a few years, I came down with valley fever. I thought it was just the flu, and it was years later when a blood test showed that I had contacted it.

    Most people, like me, don’t realize that they have it–just a cold or the flu is the self-diagnosis. It, however, can be dangerous to the very young or to those with medical problems already. However, it isn’t the bogeyman some try to depict it. I find that there are a lot more serious problems in other parts of the country, including sunny California. I’ll stay here, thank you.

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