Valley fever, a gnarly, airborn fungal infection common in the Southwestern United States, is reaching epidemic levels. Also known as Coccidioidomycosis, or cocci, the affliction, for which there is no cure or vaccine, has hit some 20,000 people so far this year.
The infection is transmitted through microscopic spores in the soil kicked up by the wind. Once lodged in the warm, moist flesh of the lungs, it can spread to your bones, skin, eyes, or in extreme cases, the brain. The infected tend to lose weight and strength at a rapid pace. While it isn’t immediately life threatening, about 160 people die each year from complications.
The dramatic uptick in the number of infections is currently being attributed to changes in climate. Cases tend to spike when rainfall is followed by dry spells, and with much of the Southwest experiencing severe droughts, there’s no shortage of dust to act as a vector.
Last week, the fever attracted national attention when a federal judge ordered the transfer of some 2,600 vulnerable inmates from prisons in the San Joaquin Valley, where the infection gets its name and is known to thrive. In a study from the Department of Health Services in Arizona, researchers found that African Americans have a 25% chance of developing complications from the disease, compared with only 6% of whites.