PHOENIX -- Among the unique aspects of life in the Valley of the Sun is the likelihood of contracting a disease you won't find almost anywhere else. Eighty percent of Arizona's reported cases of Valley Fever occur in Maricopa County, according to Dr. John Galgiani at the newly opened Valley Fever Center at St. Joseph's Hospital.
What is Valley Fever?
Valley Fever is a fungal infection caused by microscopic spores that are inhaled into the lungs. Galgiani said most people have a strong enough immune system to fight off the disease and may show no symptoms. Others may experience an upper respiratory infection that results in a cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, fever and fatigue -- and resolves on its own.
"For most people, the infection pretty much stays in the lungs and your body controls it very well," Galgiani said.
But he said about 400 people each year get very sick, some in a chronic and debilitating way. And about 100 people die of Valley Fever each year. Galgiani said those most vulnerable to serious complications have a weakened immune system (that includes pregnant women, those living with HIV, being treated with steroids or chemotherapy) and those who are older.
"A small percentage of people go on to have it go into the bloodstream to other parts of the body," Galgiani said. "That can cause disease in bones, in the skin, cause abscesses or cause meningitis, which is the most severe form of the disease."
Toll on AZ
Two-thirds of the nation's cases occur in Arizona and 80 percent of those are in Maricopa County.
"I think the economic impact is probably at least $200 million a year and going up," Galgiani said.
Debbie Sandeson, 58, moved to the Valley from Washington state three years ago to help care for her elderly parents. Then, about six months ago, she got sick.
"It was like a severe cold-flu that just would not go away," Sandeson said. "The worst part of it right now is still the breathing. And by afternoon -- I'm fatigued, I'm wiped out."
It took a while for Sandeson to be diagnosed with Valley Fever. In her case, it was confirmed with a blood test as well as a biopsy of one of the spots on her lungs.
2011 Disease Spikes
Last year, the number of Valley Fever cases increased nearly 40 percent. Since the fungal spore that causes the infection is wind-driven, there was speculation the uptick could be traced to last July's monstrous dust storms. But the data indicated otherwise.
"In fact, each week of last year there were more cases," Galgiani said.
Instead, he attributes the increase to our overall climate, or weather. The fungal spores simply thrive in the weather extremes here: Lots of rain for the fungus to grow, followed by a long dry spell, after which any kind of breeze disturbing the dust can send them airborne.
Treatment & Hope for a Cure
Right now, the only treatment for Valley Fever is anti-fungal medication that simply suppresses the infection. But there is real hope for a cure.
"We have a drug, Nikkomycin Z, which we would like to get back into clinical trials because it might potentially cure this disease," Galgiani said.
Of course, research to develop a drug is expensive. And since Valley Fever is considered an "orphan disease," affecting a small population, researchers must depend on grants to continue clinical trials.
The Valley Fever Center at St. Joseph's Hospital is eager to educate and serve. For more information, visit www.vfce.arizona.edu.