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Summer spikes expected in Valley fever, cases on rise across Az

Summer is underway in Southern Arizona and with it comes not only an increase in temperatures, but also in the number of new Valley fever cases.

The number of people contracting the fungal infection have sharply increased in recent years and many don't even know they have the illness, Banner Health experts said in a news release this week.

"And some people think it’s the summer storms that cause the Valley fever, but in fact, it’s the dry period before the rains hit when the spores get in the air," said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence.

Valley fever spreads via airborne spores in soil that come from the fungus known as Coccidioides. Patients with Valley fever can have no symptoms, but in the unlikely situation of a severe case, the illness can spread to vital organs and may require long-term medication.

Symptoms may include muscle ache, coughing and chest pain. A specific blood test for Valley fever can determine if someone is infected.

Breezy and dry conditions help spread the illness, the news release said, but the infection can not spread between people.

“Even though it’s a good idea to stay out of dust storms, infections can occur even when it is not very windy. Knowing that Valley fever occurs here in Arizona is the key,” Galgiani said in the release.

The illness has been on the rise in the state. Valley fever cases have already surpassed 4,500 this year, and cases have doubled since 2014, according to Arizona Department of Health Services statistics.

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After reaching a record high number of cases in 2011, the number of diagnosed infections may be increasing now due in part to the increased awareness of the illness among doctors, Galgiani told the Sentinel. 

Infections can vary each year based on factors such as heavy rains the year before. While summer rains do not further the spread of Valley fever, rains during the winter or previous summer increase the growth of the infectious spores, which are then released during dry conditions.

Only about one-third of people who contract Valley fever need medical attention, the release said, but seeking help for the disease in other parts of the country can be difficult.

“Medical providers in areas of the country where Valley fever is not endemic are much less likely to be aware of the disease, and may attribute Valley fever symptoms to severe flu or other conditions,” Banner’s release said. “Misdiagnosis can lead to significant delays in treatment, potentially allowing the infection to spread and become more serious.”

The same issue can occur in Arizona because many doctors in the state were educated in regions where the infection is rare, according to Galgiani. “So they show up here and start practicing and really haven’t seen much of Valley fever, so they don’t know what to do with it,” he said to the Sentinel.

Banner Health and the Valley Fever Center for Excellence have created publicly available guidelines to help medical professionals better recognize the illness. Valley fever kills roughly a few hundred people each year out of about 150,000 cases, Galgiani said.

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Valley Fever Center for Excellence

A spherule, the Valley fever fungus in its tissue-invasive form, is shown here in this lab image recovered from a patient with Valley fever pneumonia.