Monsoon Special 2013: Health expert clears up valley fever myths

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- With Arizona’s summer monsoon around the corner, health experts are clearing up misconceptions about dust storms and their correlation to valley fever.

“I think anyone who's breathing in Arizona has a chance of getting this infection and getting the symptoms,” said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at University of Arizona.

In January 2011, Stephane Mijuskovic's life came to a screeching halt.

"One day, I just coughed up a big glob of blood, and that's what prompted me to go to the doctor to get diagnosed," Mijuskovic recalled. "He said it was probably just a bug going around. He gave me a basic antibiotic, said, ‘Here take this for 10 days, you should be good.'"

But the 21-year-old Arizona State University student got worse. A chest X-ray later revealed an abscess growing on his lung. Valley fever caused it.

“From what I had read is if you're young, you have a good immune system, so you should be able to kick this really quick,” Mijuskovi said.

But two years later, valley fever still has a firm grip on Mijuskovic's health.

“It's like a frail feeling in your bones, kind of like you just woke up in the morning, but all day,” Mijuskovic explained.

“This disease can cause serious problems in almost anyone, and we really don't know why,” Galgiani said.

Galgiani studies patients like Mijuskovic to better understand the infection, which is caused by a fungus in the dirt. After spores grow and conditions become dry, single cells crack off and flow into the air.

“If you happen to be in the right place at the right time and inhale one of these spores, you probably are going to develop an infection,” Galgiani said.

According to Galgiani, valley fever cannot be passed from person to person. Symptoms include chest pain, cough, fever and sometimes rash. Joint and muscle aches are also common.

The latest data from the Arizona Department for Health Services shows that in 2011, more than 16,000 people statewide got sick. That number has been on the rise since 1997. But Galgiani said a big valley fever misconception is that the number of cases ramp up in the months immediately following a dust storm.

“The risk of getting valley fever in general is whether or not you live here or visit here, rather than whether or not you are subjected to a high wind storm,” Galgiani said.

Another myth? Galgiani said valley fever is often referred to as a flu-like illness, giving the impression that it's gone in just a few days, when in fact, the average length of time is many weeks to many months.

In Mijuskovic’s case, late detection may have contributed to his lengthy illness. Valley fever can only be detected through specific laboratory tests.

“Don't be afraid, that if you're coughing more often than usual, to go to your regular doctor and say ‘Hey, can i get tested for valley fever?’” Mijuskovic said.