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Valley fever cases on the rise in Kern County

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Joshua Yeager
Royce Johnson, medical director of the Valley Fever Institute, speaks at a news briefing at the Kern County Public Health Department on Aug. 16, 2022. Local valley fever cases are on the rise, he says.

An explosion in valley fever cases has Kern County health officials concerned.

The disease is caused by fungal spores that occur naturally in the San Joaquin Valley’s dry and abundant soil.

Those spores can wreak havoc once they reach a person's lungs – causing persistent, severe respiratory illness. In rare cases, the fungus can also spread to the bones, joints or even the brain.

Over 3,000 cases and 30 deaths were recorded in Kern alone last year. That’s nearly triple the 2015 total, says Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan. The county recently launched a digital dashboard that residents can use to track the disease’s spread.

“We are all susceptible to getting valley fever, whether or not we were raised here in Kern County, or we recently moved here, or we’re just traveling through,” Carrigan said.

About 40% of those infected by the fungus will get sick while only 10% of cases get diagnosed, says Royce Johnson, a doctor who leads the Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical.

“We’re interested in increasing that number with better and more available diagnostics,” he said.

With attention focused on another respiratory illness – COVID-19 – and fewer people going to the doctor, Johnson fears that the undercount has worsened during the pandemic.

Recent drought conditions may also cause valley fever cases to spread more quickly. The fungus thrives in dry periods after rainfall, the kind of weather whiplash that has characterized California’s climate in recent years.

Health officials caution Valley residents to avoid going outside during dust storms. If you experience pneumonia-like symptoms that persist longer than a week, or after taking antibiotics, you should ask your practitioner to test for valley fever.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.
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