Lack of awareness of Valley fever is the disease’s biggest danger

Tristan Ettleman

About Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman, a Cronkite News digital reporter on the futures beat, covers the intersection of technology and society. His portfolio includes a story on the revolution of block chain, the tech behind cryptocurrency, in the medical field and other industries.

Photo by Tristan Ettleman/Cronkite News“Time is lost and the patient gets worse,” Valley fever patient Jim Meenaghan said of physicians’ unfamiliarity with the disease.

PHOENIX — Doctors can misdiagnose Valley fever, a fungal disease that lurks behind common symptoms like coughs and fatigue, because many aren’t familiar with the respiratory disease, medical experts said. And that could prolong patient suffering.

Misdiagnoses not only hinder Valley fever recovery, they can make it worse, said John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Tucson. Galgiani is speaking about the dangers of the respiratory disease on Sunday at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, Health Journalism 2018, in Phoenix.

“One of the reasons clinicians are not as familiar with this as they should be is because they don’t train here,” he said.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received more than 11,000 reports of Valley fever, which strikes people with fatigue, coughing, fever and headaches that last weeks, even months.

About 6,000 reports were from Arizona, and more than 5,000 from California. But likely tens of thousands of cases go unreported, CDC epidemiologist Orion McCotter said.

One percent of patients may have the disease move to other parts of their body, infecting blood, bones and organs and 5 to 10 percent may have severe respiratory problems, resulting in even more aggressive respiratory issues and fatigue, McCotter said.

The symptoms and complications result in about 100 to 150 deaths a year, he said, but even the nonfatal repercussions of the disease can be disruptive. About 75 percent of patients might miss up to two weeks of school or work, McCotter said.

The issue, ultimately, lies in treatment rather than prevention.

“This is a fungus that lives in the environment,” McCotter said. “It’s difficult to prevent.”

Misdiagnoses are often due to Valley fever’s routine symptoms.

“They look like a lot of other respiratory diseases,” McCotter said.

Galgiani said the metro Phoenix area’s draw for newcomers means patients and physicians are often from other parts of the country where a regional disease of Valley fever is virtually unknown. Census estimates show 222 people daily moved to Maricopa County in 2016 and more than 100,000 newcomers moved to Arizona last year.

The fungus that causes Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, lives in a specific kind of soil found almost exclusively in California and Arizona. But as more people move to and from those states, carrying dust and items that may contain the fungus, the geographic range of the disease is expanding, McCotter said.

Jim Meenaghan, who has lived in Phoenix for nearly 20 years after living in New York City and San Francisco, said he had heard about the disease shortly after moving to Phoenix “in a very vague way.”

Eight years ago, he learned about it the hard way, as a patient.

Meenaghan said his situation is an example of a Valley fever diagnosis that can go right. He had been experiencing splitting headaches and high temperatures and his doctor first gave him a “heavy dose” of antibiotics for a suspected viral illness.

When Meenaghan returned three days later, his doctor could tell the antibiotics hadn’t worked.

“Holy expletive, this is getting worse,” Meenaghan said.

But his doctor knew to test for Valley fever, Meenaghan said. Six months later, he was free of the disease. The issue isn’t with the treatment, he said.

“The real problem is a communication problem,” he said.

Still, Meenaghan said he hopes for a vaccine that can speed up the lengthy process he went through.

Galgiani said research and developments need to put a stop to unnecessary treatment and invasive procedures.

He added that a being developed at the University of Arizona, where the Valley fever Center is based, is promising. In the meantime, though, programs conducted by UA, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the CDC can spread the awareness necessary to mitigate the problems caused by Valley fever.

“I think it can also be a stepping stone,” Galgiani said.

Students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University are reporting this week from Health Journalism 2018. Cronkite is home to Arizona PBS and students receive hands-on experiences working for Cronkite News, a multiplatform daily news operation.

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