The number of valley fever cases, a sometimes lethal fungal infection, has risen by more than 850 percent in the United States from 1998 to 2011 because of warming climates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease is especially hard-hitting in California, Arizona and New Mexico, where fungus-laced spores can easily be inhaled in dusty fields or at construction sites. Once inhaled, the fungus can spread to various parts of the body causing blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and even death.
Valley fever, also known as Coccidioidomycosis, remains a major cause of death in the United States, according to a study at the University of South California. Between 1990 and 2008 there were 3,089 documented deaths nationwide caused by it, nearly twice the number reported by the CDC in the past.
About 150,000 cases go undiagnosed every year because the disease is difficult to detect and there is little awareness of its existence. It gained interest only last week when inmates from Central Valley prisons were transferred after an outbreak.
"If the state is so concerned about prisoners, they should be worrying about all of us who live and work in the valley," said Kathy Uhley, a former realtor from Los Banos who contracted the fever last year.
California public health officials say they are training the public and doctors, many of whom come from out of state, to recognize the disease. The increase in reports of the disease is due in part to the state’s education of medical practitioners.
"When I found out that health officials knew about (this disease) and how common it is, I was beside myself," said Dale Pulde, a mechcanic who contracted valley fever and was forced to sell his house to pay for treatment. "Why don't they tell people?"
Doctors and patients have called for greater attention to valley fever, including funding research for a cure.