The highest level of the fungus in San Joaquin County can be predominately found around Tracy, according to Dr. Karen Furst, health officer for the San Joaquin County Public Health Services. In the state, the highest levels can be found in Kern, Tulare and Kings counties.
Reported cases in the county have climbed since 2009, but Furst said people need to become educated rather than panic.
“Valley fever has always been around Tracy and the San Joaquin Valley, so there is no reason for people to become alarmed about this now,” Furst said. “But you need to be aware of the issue in and around where you live and be knowledgeable so you can take precautions.”
In 2009, 27 cases of the disease for which there is no vaccine were reported in San Joaquin County, according to numbers provided by the county’s Public Health Services.
Reported cases in 2010 rose to 46, but in 2011, reports spiked to 123.
During those three years, the city of Tracy accounted for 12 cases in 2009, 22 in 2010 and 79 cases in 2011.
According to calculations by the Tracy Press, 44 percent of reported cases in San Joaquin County in 2009 were made by city residents. Those numbers rose to 48 percent in 2010 and 64 percent in 2011. Overall reports among city residents have increased 558 percent during those three years.
As of June 6 of this year, the department had tallied 51 total reported cases — a number Furst said was “on pace to be high again this year.” Numbers for Tracy were unavailable.
She believes elevated numbers of reported cases during the same period of time have occurred because wet springs caused the fungus to grow in the soil. The fungus then becomes airborne during drier summer and fall conditions, Furst said.
“It’s something we monitor every year,” she said. “This is not a crisis, but we need to be diligent and watch how valley fever affects our population.”
What causes valley fever
Valley fever is a disease caused by Coccidioides immitis, a fungus that grows in soil.
It typically infects people when the spores become airborne and are inhaled into their lungs.
In California, the fungus is mostly found in the San Joaquin Valley.
Exposure to the disease is most common during the drier months of summer and fall, when loose dust, which carries the fungus, is blown around by high winds that are common in the area.
The phenomenon makes the city’s residents the most prone in the county to inhaling contaminated air particles.
“The fungus and spores have always been more prevalent in and around Tracy — we’ve known that,” Furst said. “There isn’t enough scientific knowledge right now to determine why this is the case. That’s why we need to educate people about the issue.”
What the symptoms are
As the disease is contracted by inhalation, infected people can experience pain in the lungs and feel flu- or pneumonia-like symptoms that include extreme tiredness, fever, body aches, pain, cough and rash. Symptoms can subside in a month, but it can take several months for a person’s full energy to return.
Men and women between 25 and 55 are most vulnerable to showing signs of valley fever.
Symptoms can develop within one to three weeks of exposure. Failing to identify the symptoms and begin treatment in a timely manner can allow the disease to spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, skin, joints or the brain, and could even cause death.
Who is in danger
People working outside, such as construction workers and farmers, are most vulnerable to exposure, but Furst noted that regular outdoor activities, such as gardening and exercising, also increase one’s chance for exposure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women, older people and people with compromised immune systems — including those who have cancer, HIV or diabetes — are also vulnerable.
The disease is believed to spread faster in the bodies of black, Latino and Filipino people, according to the county’s public health services.
The disease cannot be passed from person to person or from animals to humans, according to the county.
Diagnosis, treatment and prevention
Valley fever is confirmed by taking a culture of the cocci organism from a patient’s bodily fluids or tissue or by a blood test that shows if the body is producing antibodies to fight the disease.
Doctors typically recommend bed rest, though medications can be prescribed for more extreme cases.
People who work outside or are in at-risk groups can reduce exposure by wearing dust masks or respiratory masks; watering dusty patches of dirt, such as those at construction sites; and limiting time spent outside.
Furst said early recognition of symptoms can prevent further damage or sickness if the disease is contracted.
“That is the most important thing here — get medical attention if you think you’re sick,” she said.
•Editor's note: This article was updated Monday, June 18, to reflect valley fever numbers reported in Tracy during 2009-2011 that were provided by the San Joaquin County Public Health Services after press time on Thursday, June 14. Information in this story has also been corrected.