Valley Fever continues to affect AZ, researchers work to halt it

MONSOON 2017: Health concerns during the monsoon

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Valley Fever continues to be a threat to Arizona, especially during the monsoon when high winds are commonplace.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, valley fever is a fungal respiratory disease. The fungus that causes the disease lives in the soil and dust in the southwestern United States.

When something kicks up the dust, people can inhale the spores, and some will get sick. Some will get better on their own, but some will need medication.

It's rare, but valley fever also can be deadly. Of the 150,000 people in the U.S. who get valley fever each year, two-thirds them are in Arizona. Most of them are in what's called the "Valley Fever Corridor," that runs from Tucson to Phoenix.

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona is at the forefront of research into the disease.

It's working to get a possible cure, nikkomycin Z, into clinical trials. Tucson scientists are also working on a vaccine. Both nikkomycin Z and the vaccine have come out of the University of Arizona.

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence also is a partner in a large study of an existing antifungal drug, Fluconazole, in the treatment of valley fever pneumonia. That study is in conjunction with Duke University's Human Vaccine Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

"I think it's a very exciting time for new developments as well as making doctors take care of patients better and doing a better job with the tools we have. In terms of vaccines, we actually have a vaccine candidate, discovered here at the U of A, which we think could go into clinical trials. And actually we'd first go to see if we could prevent this disease in dogs because they get valley fever just as bad--maybe even more frequently than humans," said UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence Director Dr. John Galgiani.

Researchers are even looking at some of the rarest cases of valley fever, including three generations of a family who might help scientists find genetic clues to the disease.

One member of the family is Sheri Hill, who has been on medication for 21 years and could be on it for the rest of her life if no cure is found for valley fever.

"A lot of people don't realize that. They think valley fever is just some little cold or whatever that you have. They don't understand that it can be very dangerous. I have it under control," Hill said. "21 years is a long time to be on 400 milligrams of Fluconazole everyday. So, I'm hoping they they get a cure."

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence wants more doctors to understand valley fever, but wants patients to be aware too so when their doctors are looking for a diagnosis, the patients can ask if it might be valley fever.

"If you have an illness, your doctor says you have pneumonia. In Tucson it's about a 30 percent chance that it's due to this fungal infection which is not what most doctors think of as the cause of pneumonia and consequently the treatment would be very different," Galgiani said.

Galgiani said, in any case, the doctors should be able to make the diagnosis as quickly as possible.

"Some patients do need treatments and they can be quite sick. And some patients need treatment for their life. But the vast majority of people who get sick end up controlling it because of their own immune system and, there, it's not at all clear whether any treatment is needed or helpful. And so the first question is just to make the diagnosis so that you stop doing all sorts of things that really have no value because, if you're treating a bacterial infection and you have a fungal infection, it just doesn't help."

To get a diagnosis quickly, the Valley Fever Center for Excellence and its partners have designed a booklet to help educate primary care doctors.

Galgiani said they usually are the first people people see when they get sick, and the first people who can diagnose and prescribe the right treatment.

By proclamation of the Arizona Governor's Office, the second week in November is Valley Fever Awareness Week. This year it's November 7-15.

To learn more about the Valley Fever Center for Excellence and to find a list of event for Valley Fever Awareness Week, click here.

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