What is Valley Fever? Hidden pathogens in the dust.

By Bill Tong

Valley Fever, otherwise know as Coccidioidomycosis (try pronouncing that!) is a fungal infection endemic to Southwestern North America and parts of South and Central America. There’s around 10,000 cases of Valley Fever each year in the United States, mostly from Southwestern States such as California. The pathogen lies in the test, and it enter peoples’ lungs when they inhale this dust. The fungus thrives in arid conditions and given the increased desiccation of many parts of the Southwest due to climate change and water misuse, it is likely that cases of Valley Fever may increase.

Dust storms can carry Valley Fever fungus spores hundreds of miles away.

The infection symptoms include fatigue, coughs, rashes, fevers, muscle pain, and skin lesions. Valley fever has caused several fatalities and some people have developed chronic infections and live with the infection for the rest of their lives. It is hard to prevent people from breathing in the spores, and wind has the potential to spread the disease hundreds of miles away, as seen in one outbreak in 1977.

Dust storms can carry spores even to high altitudes, where hikers can breathe in spore infested dust.

Now, where do dust storms fit in? There is a high risk of breathing in dust particles during a dust storms, and the dust storms bring spores into the areas they impact. These spores latch onto dust particles and even on days long after the dust storm has subsided, people are at risk of breathing in the fungus. In many of the agricultural areas of the Southwest, such as California’s Central Valley, people are especially at risk due to the dust being stirred up by family machinery and livestock.

Cars and machinery can stir up the dust brought by dust storms, spreading the spores through the air.

The hidden threat of Valley Fever from dust storms was one reason we decided to create the Dust Watch App. If people were warned about incoming dust storms, vectors of this possibly deadly disease, less people would get infected.