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Valley Fever Raises Concerns in California, Arizona

A longstanding health problem in California's Central Valley has worsened in recent years, leading health officials to order the relocation of 3,000 prisoners from two state prisons. But the disease affects much of the population in some rural communities and, while it often goes unnoticed, it sometimes can be devastating for patients.

Dale Pulde is selling his California home because he's unable to meet his payments. The motorcycle mechanic and drag car racer was infected with Valley Fever in California's Central Valley and has mostly been unable to work. He used to race in the valley.

He would often have aches and pains when he returned to his home in Los Angeles and, one year, he developed a terrible cough. At first, he coughed so hard that he blacked out.

“Breaking out in welts and sweats. The doctors didn't know what to do, and they had me loaded full of [the anti-inflammatory drug] prednisone and all kinds of different things, and it was basically getting worse," said Pulde.

In late 2010, doctors diagnosed him with Valley Fever, and he's been taking anti-fungal drugs since then, including one that costs nearly $1,000 a bottle.

Valley Fever, known to doctors as coccidioidomycosis, is spread by fungal spores released into the air when the soil is disturbed. It's becoming more common as people move into once rural areas, including California's Central Valley and other semi-arid areas of the US southwest, especially Arizona, and parts of Latin America.

Doctor Robert Kaplan is a specialist who teaches at the University of California, Irvine. He says half of those infected show no symptoms, while others have aches and fever. In a a minority of patients, he says, there is lung disease and, in one percent, more serious conditions.

“The most important one is meningitis, where it affects the lining of the brain and the spinal cord, and that can be a very, very bad disease," said Kaplan.

Valley Fever can also spread to the bones and, at its worst, can be fatal.

It's hardest on people with depressed immune systems and, for reasons not yet clear, on certain racial groups, says Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, a specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Filipinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians," said Dunavan.

But others with little susceptibility are also vulnerable, like Seattle resident Sharon Filip. She is Caucasian and was healthy but contracted the disease while visiting Arizona. Now, she operates a website called Valley Fever Survivor with her son David.

“I was a shadow of who I was beforehand. And I should also say, I never had an immuno-compromised situation. I was not sick. I never was on medication," said Filip.

On the website, she has described her battle against the disease in graphic detail. She says Valley Fever should get more attention.

Dr. Dunavan agrees.

“I think the first priority is to raise the awareness of patients and doctors who should be diagnosing it, trying to put people on treatment if it's warranted," she said.

There is so far no cure or vaccine to prevent Valley Fever, and reported cases are increasing. Doctors say, for now, early detection is the most effective way to fight the disease.