Why Valley Fever could eventually impact more people across the Western US

(InvestigateTV) — What is Valley Fever? How do you catch it?

The CDC reports, that the most common way to get the disease is by breathing in a fungus found in desert-like soils.

It has mainly been a concern in Arizona and California. Research predicts that affected areas will more than double by the end of the century.

InvestigateTV+ has an in-depth look at who’s at risk and how doctors are training to spot the disease. Watch the full story in the video at the top of the page.

Who’s At Risk

Jeff Winebrenner moved to Arizona in 2012 as a young healthy teacher, but shortly after he fell seriously ill.

“I got sick from dust,” Winebrenner said.

He couldn’t walk, had IVs around the clock and even lost his hearing.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, I breathed air and that got me really sick.”

Winebrenner credits a doctor’s diagnosis with saving his life.

“Luckily, I had a very experienced doctor who tested me for Valley Fever and it was.”

Valley Fever is a disease caused by a fungus that’s primarily found in hot dry environments like the American Southwest. It can get carried around in dust.

Many who do get sick don’t need medication.

The California Health Department reports that 60% of those infected with Valley Fever never even know they have it.

For a rare few like Winebrenner, it can be devastating.

While stabilized now, for years, Winebrenner said his fight against Valley Fever has made steady work impossible.

“That’s gonna be my mission in life, is to be a good stay-at-home dad, until we can get this cured and I can get back in there and start swinging again.”

A lifelong fight, Winebrenner says, cost him an estimated million dollars.

“Being your own advocate is huge because if you don’t go in and get the tests, nobody’s gonna know.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20,000 cases are reported each year, and about 97% come from California and Arizona.

A 2019 study in the journal GeoHealth projects Valley Fever could spread east through the Great Plains and north to the Canadian border in less than 75 years.

How Doctors Are Training to Spot The Disease

Valley Fever is not contagious, but it can lay dormant in your body. The center also stressed the importance of getting tested if you have symptoms as Valley Fever can be similar to the flu or COVID-19.

If you look at the symptoms, cough, chest pain, fever, dyspnea, headaches, joint pain, all of these are the same symptoms that you have or anybody says they have in COVID.

Dr. Sarah Parker with Karius, a company that tests for infectious diseases believes awareness and training are critical.

“The concern is that will catch ‘em too late and you can die from this disease if it’s caught too late,” Dr. Parker said.

Dr. Parker says climate change could be putting more people at risk.

“What’s concerning is as the climate is getting hotter in certain areas, that fungus is potentially spreading further out. And so more and more people are at risk.”

The CDC estimates Valley Fever cases are likely in the tens of thousands. The disease has long been misdiagnosed and is often mistaken for pneumonia in Arizona.

It’s one of the reasons the Valley Fever Center for Excellence developed an educational program for doctors.

The program outlines what doctors should consider when diagnosing a patient.

This includes ordering the right test and checking for risk factors.

“When somebody comes to urgent care with a respiratory condition that looks like pneumonia, that you think that Valley Fever should be tested for because our data shows that it’s one chance out of five that that pneumonia is actually caused by this fungus,” Dr. John Galgiani of the Valley Fever Center explained.

The center had patients who got multiple negative tests for COVID before finally getting a Valley Fever test that was positive.

A study from Arizona-based Banner Health showed the overall number of tests that were ordered for Valley Fever increased significantly after clinics implemented the program.

“With training, we were able to improve the frequency that the clinicians at Urgent Care have been improving, looking for Valley Fever when they should be doing that,” Dr. Galgiani continued.

Banner Health also finds training helps reduce treatment costs.

Bringing National Attention to Impact of Valley Fever

Arizona Representative David Schweikert co-founded the Congressional Valley Fever Task Force, which aims to bring national attention to the disease.

“The number of people who come through Tucson or the Valley, or even the California desert, and may find themselves sitting someplace in New York. And there’s this funny scar on their lung. How many of the doctors there have ever even heard of Valley Fever?”

In 2022, the congressman helped secure $4.5 million in federal funding for Valley Fever treatments and vaccines.

Valley Fever Can Affect Dogs Too

It’s not just your health to think about, but your four-legged friend, it’s estimated that 25% of dogs who get Valley Fever will become seriously ill, requiring surgery or lifelong treatment.

The University of Arizona is working with an animal health company and has developed a Valley Fever vaccine they say is highly effective and safe in dogs.

A study found any symptoms that were seen in dogs who received the vaccine were considered clinically irrelevant because it was so mild.

Once the vaccine becomes available, it would be the first time the US has approved a vaccine to protect against a fungal infection in any species.

Tisha Powell

Tisha Powell

Tisha Powell is an anchor for WAFB 9News in Baton Rouge.

Wade Smith

Wade Smith

Wade leads the production workflow and strategy development of digital content for Gray Television’s National Investigative Team. He started his digital career in Atlanta, GA in 2009 after graduating from the University of Alabama.