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Valley fever crisis demands a champion

Government Response to Valley Fever

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Valley fever crisis demands a champion

The press coverage by the Reporting on Health Collaborative exposed just how little attention the airborne fungal infection has received from officials at all levels of government. This has to end.

Dust Storm, Fresno County
Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Bakersfield Californian Editorial Board

A series of recent articles by reporters from The Californian and the new Reporting on Health collaborative brought some much-needed attention to the recent surge in valley fever cases -- a surge that has occurred substantially under the public radar. The press coverage exposed just how little attention the airborne fungal infection has received from officials at all levels of government. This has to end.

We need more research money. We need better diagnoses, detection and drugs to treat the infection. We need a vaccine. And most importantly, we need a champion of this disease who can speak up on our behalf and rally the state and national resources needed to effectively combat an illness that can strike anyone who breathes the local air.

Today, even though it's endemic primarily to California and Arizona, valley fever -- or coccidioidomycosis -- is more common than AIDS or chickenpox. Nationwide, infection rates have quadrupled in recent years from four cases per 100,000 people to more than 13 per 100,000. Kern County, which consistently has the highest number of valley fever cases in the state, saw its reported cases triple from 2009 to 2010, and they continue to climb.

Yet other diseases and illness with far less prevalence receive more attention. West Nile virus attracts far more concern and resources than valley fever, even though reported cases are a fraction. With 2,600 cases nationwide, this year has been one of the worst for West Nile virus since the illness has been tracked. Yet Kern County alone had 2,700 cases of valley fever just last year. Nationwide, 2011 saw 13,000 cases of valley fever. Since most cases of valley fever are never reported, it's estimated that 150,000 people are infected each year.

The disheartening facts about valley fever laid out in the newspaper series go on and on. While West Nile virus has received a total of $585 million from the National Institutes of Health for research since 2000, valley fever projects have gotten a comparative sliver of that amount, a paltry $25 million. Money earmarked to research a vaccine is gone and no more is on the immediate horizon. Misdiagnosis, even in Kern County, remains common. The state can barely track the disease because it stores each year's data in a separate database and can't figure out how to link them.

These facts raise a number of questions. First and foremost, where were local and state public health officials the past three years when valley fever cases were surging? Why have there been no warnings to the public so people might at least be aware their cold or flu could be something more serious? People have died from the disease without even knowing they had it. Others have undergone unnecessary treatments because they were misdiagnosed. Shouldn't the public know when a potentially deadly disease is on the rise? Sadly, detection and diagnosis in prisons is better than in our local communities.

And where are the politicians and health advocates in all of this? Why is no one asking for more funding for a disease that so adversely impacts one of the state's poorest regions? How can research on a vaccine be allowed to dry up while infection rates have skyrocketed?

The silence must end. Kern County must demand action. And someone -- a county supervisor, a state legislator, a congressional representative -- must step forward and take up this issue. People's lives are at stake.

Photo courtesy of

 

About This Series

This project results from an innovative reporting venture – the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative – which currently involves the Bakersfield Californian, Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, Hanford Sentinel, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, La Estrella de Tucsón and the Center for Health Journalism. The collaborative is an initiative of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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