Experts in Valley fever say testing has improved, likely a factor in cases increasing

More cases of Valley fever are popping up in the Phoenix area but that's in part due to more testing, doctors say.
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 4:16 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - As we spend more time outside in warmer weather, it’s important to know about the dangers of Valley fever. It can cause severe illness, and even death in humans and pets. Testing has always been a challenge, with it often going misdiagnosed, but experts say testing has improved and they are seeing more cases. “The most common symptoms are cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue can be a really common one,” said Dr. John Galgiani with Banner Health.

Symptoms for Valley fever look like many respiratory illnesses, according to the experts. “For every four patients that actually had COVID, there was an additional patient that didn’t have Banner Health but had Valley fever instead,” said Galgiani.

The Arizona Department of Health Services is reporting a rise in Valley fever. In 2020 and again in 2021, it reported around 11,500 confirmed cases. The last time cases were that high was in 2012, with almost 13,000 cases, while the record high was back in 2011. “When there’s dust storms, when you you think about monsoon when it gets really windy, those are times when people are most likely to be exposed to those spores,” said Jessica Rigler, staff vice president of Population Health & Innovation for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.

Dr. Marie Grill is a neurologist specializing in infectious diseases and often deals with patients with the worst Valley fever cases. “Very small proportion of people, they can actually have spread of the infection out of the lung to outside of the lung to other parts of the body, including the lung and skin and nervous system,” she said.

Dr. Galgiani says dogs have about the same chance as their owners of being infected but says cases among dogs are even higher than in humans, likely because they’re tested for Valley fever more often. “Dogs get Valley fever about three to four times more frequently than humans do per year, so it’s a big problem in the veterinarian community and the kind of disease they get is very similar to what seem humans do,” he said.

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The disease is not contagious, and can’t be passed from dog to person, person to dog or even person to person. “We’re now working on a vaccine which is going to be a vaccine for dogs. We hope within the next year and that same vaccine very likely would also prevent valley fever in humans,” Galgiani said.

Doctors say some people have no symptoms, and once you’ve had Valley fever, you are immune for the rest of your life. One thing they say you can do to avoid getting exposed is spraying the dirt around your home with water if you are going to be outside or doing yard work.