TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — There’s a dangerous illness with infection rates rising but it’s not COVID-19. Valley Fever is on the rise and the reason may rest with the weather.
Florence Richey had lived in Arizona for barely two months when something hit her hard.
“I came in September, and then in November. I got very, very sick with a splitting, splitting headache and high, high temperature, and of course at that time, I thought it was COVID and I thought oh no I had COVID.”
It wasn’t COVID but it was something serious. Valley Fever: a fungal infection common in the desert Southwest. Fungus spores lay dormant in the dust until someone inhales them. The moisture in their lungs wakes up the fungus. It blooms into an infection. For many people the case is so mild they never know they’re sick but for some it’s debilitating and even deadly.
Even in Arizona, many doctors don’t recognize Valley Fever. Florence Richey says the first doctor she saw didn’t, but another doctor treating her for rheumatoid arthritis tested for Valley Fever and found it.
“I had lots of testing done because I am on an immunosuppressant drug, and I found out that when you're on immunosuppressant drug it's extremely dangerous that you can easily get Valley fever, and then it's extremely dangerous when you have the two together.”
“For every case it's reported there's probably three or four people who got sick and had an illness from this but the doctors never recognize it, ” says Doctor John Galgiani. He leads the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
He says this year Valley Fever’s heading for the highest case count in the last ten years. With about 5,100 cases so far this year compared to about 3,300 this time last year.
Doctor Galgiani thinks the jump is from the environment and not long term climate change, but a short term wetter winter that helps the fungus grow, followed by drought that helps it dry out so it can float into our lungs.
And COVID led to more tests that may have raised the Valley Fever stats.
Doctor Galgiani says, “If you got hospitalized for possible COVID And you're tested for that they also test for Valley Fever and for every four cases that they diagnosed COVID there was an additional case that was Valley Fever. So it's the same presentation and respiratory illness you just can't tell them apart.”
Doctor Galgiani says it’s hard to protect against Valley Fever. If you have a cough, fatigue and fever, the best defense is to ask your doctor to test for it.
Florence Richey says after the right diagnosis and the right treatment she’s feeling better but she’s still not sure how she got Valley Fever.