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Jan 31, 2014 9:07 PM by John Patrick

Valley Fever: "The Silent Epidemic"

TUCSON - Researchers find a recent decline in Valley Fever cases may be due to climate.

An average year in Arizona brings nearly 12,000 reported cases of Valley Fever, according Arizona Department of Health Services.

Valley Fever is a lung infection caused by a fungus that grows in the soil. Those spores are carried in dust and inhaled, we can breathe them in but we can't breathe out.

A fever, cough and headache are all symptoms of Valley Fever but the infection can even spread from the lungs to the rest of the body and cause meningitis. This is what happened to long time resident Dennis Saunders.

"I spent eight years of my life either in the hospital or going to the hospital every day," says Saunders.

Saunders contracted Valley Fever in the early 90s and has been dealing with the consequences ever since.

"I've had four brain surgeries and a stroke all caused by Valley Fever," explains Saunders.

In 2011 Arizona had 16,000 reported cases with a steady drop reported in 2012 and 2013. Last year the number of cases was down to about 8,000 and new research is showing that decline could be due to our weather.

According to the Center for Disease Control from 1998 to 2011 there was a tenfold increase in reported cases. According to UA Climate Scientist Andrew Comrie this is likely due recent efforts in tracking the disease, however, the recent decline in cases has a climatic component.

"Think of Valley Fever as wildflowers. If we do or we don't get the right amount of rain or it's not the right time the spores just sit there and when things are just right here will be a big batch of wildflowers," explains Saunders.

Arizona is one of the few places in the country Valley Fever is highly endemic with two-thirds of all U.S. Valley Fever infections contracted in Arizona. Dr. John Galgiani with the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona says Valley Fever is considered an orphan disease.

"It's very intense for us in this part of the country but the country as a whole it's an orphan disease because it's so infrequent," explains Dr. Galgiani.

On the grand scheme of things Valley Fever does not get that much attention but Dr. Galgiani is still working towards a cure. Nikkomycin Z is the name of the drug he is trying to ready for the marketplace but because valley fever is considered a regional disease it is hard to find funding.

"It (Nikkomycin Z) may cure this disease and we're actively investigating it. If we were able to attract a pharmaceutical company to partner with us we could move this much faster," explains Dr. Galgiani.

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence offers assistance to patients and owners of companion animals who are seeking help with their Valley Fever infections. Visit their website by clicking here.

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