Texas is among a small group of states with cases of Valley fever, a lung infection caused by breathing in a fungus called Coccidioides. The illness has been around for a long time, but hasn’t really gotten much attention – until recently.
The fungus is found in soil in the southwestern U.S. Experts believe it’s starting to appear in more places as more people move to the region.
Richard Hamill, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and an expert on fungal infections, says most people who get Valley fever don’t realize what’s making them sick.
“They inhale the fungus from disturbing the soil,” he says. As the infection grows, people can develop a mild pneumonia or flu-like illness. “They don’t think much of it.”
Hamill says sometimes – very rarely, though – Valley fever leads to serious complications. Some patients get bone and soft tissue infections from the fungus. For others, the infection develops into meningitis.
Right now, the illness is incurable. Researchers have recently started looking into developing therapies for it.
Hamill says interest is growing now because more people are moving to the Southwest, and there’s a growing number of people at risk for complications. People getting chemotherapy and people with HIV are most likely to acquire serious medical complications from the illness, he says.
“And then there are some environmental things that are starting to happen, you know, because of global warming and things like that,” he says. “People are concerned that this disease is moving out of its endemic region.”
But even as Valley fever shows up in more places, experts might not always notice. States like Arizona, which has had a number of cases, report Valley fever, but Texas doesn’t.
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, says the state doesn’t require medical providers to report Valley fever mostly because it shows up only in West Texas.
“El Paso is really the only large population center in that area,” he says. “So, that’s one of the reasons that we haven’t really pushed to make it reportable statewide. It affects such a small part of the state geographically and population wise.”
Van Deusen says there’s also not really any public health intervention for the illness.
“It’s not a communicable disease that is going to spread from one person to another,” he says. “It doesn’t present a situation where you are trying to track, ‘OK, where does it come from?’ You know, trace back and find the contacts and make the connections.”
Van Deusen says there’s no way to prevent or remove the fungus, and there’s no immunization the state could push in areas that are prone to Valley fever.