Valley fever cases continue rise with 2 more deaths in SLO County

Posted at 6:06 PM, Feb 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-07 20:06:27-05

Valley fever cases are on the rise in San Luis Obispo County. The once rare infection is now endemic in the north county. 

The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department says there were 15 valley fever deaths in 2017. Now, two additional deaths have already been recorded so far in 2018.
"I was diagnosed with valley fever 6 years ago, November 2011," said Sherry Martinez, a survivor and advocate for people living with valley fever.

"Valley fever is a fungus that grows in the soil and it needs a certain amount of moisture in order to grow in the soil," said Ann McDowell, epidemiologist with San Luis Obispo County Public Health. "Once that soil dries out, you get a lot of airborne dust that contains the fungus and people breathe it in."

Experts say the reason the Central Coast is seeing more cases is because of a very wet winter last year, allowing the fungus to grow in the soil.  

"We generally see our highest numbers of cases in December and January," McDowell said.

Valley fever cases reported in San Luis Obispo County

  • 2017: 333
  • 2016: 260
  • 2015: 53
  • 2014: 33
  • 2013: 82
  • 2012: 135
  • 2011: 165
  • 2010: 152

So far in 2018, there have been 15 confirmed cases and another 66 are under investigation. 

"Basically, I came down with a fever. I just thought I was ill," Martinez said. "I rested, my fever kind of went away, I went back to work and then I got worse."

"You really need to be careful. If you see a large dust cloud coming your way, try to avoid breathing it in," McDowell said. "If it’s a very windy day and stirring up a lot of dirt,  consider staying inside. Consider wetting down dirt where you are going to be working or gardening to make sure you’re not stirring up a lot of dirt and fungal spores."

"Living with valley fever is like living with the flu always," Martinez told KSBY News. 

The symptoms can look different for everyone with the disease, but Martinez said, "Every day, twice a day, I take two pills twice a day. I can’t work a full-time job. If I work 8 hours, the fatigue sets in."
Health officials say 60 percent of people who are infected with valley fever never even know they were exposed to the disease. In some people, their immune system clears the infection on its own.

The disease is not contagious but is becoming more common.

"The checker’s father has valley fever, the man behind me in line has valley fever, my husband has three co-workers with valley fever," Martinez said.

In the past two years, five people at Paso Robles Ford have contracted valley fever.

"It was tough being on medication and dealing with the side effects of medication and valley fever," said Jason Buchanan, valley fever survivor. "Now today, I do everything that I used to do before. There is still a lot of questions about where it’s coming from. We would love to know if we could, if there’s a way, but I don’t know if there is."

"We’ve had a very unfortunate intersection of a bad flu season and a bad valley fever season," McDowell said. "We are seeing a lot of cases of both that we might not normally see. If people are infected in one and get the other, it can be pretty hard for them to deal with."

"I have to survive because of the people I love," Martinez said.

Her experience with valley fever was featured in the February edition of ‘First for Women.’ Martinez has also started a Facebook group where men and women can find resources to help cope with valley fever. 

If you’ve been sick for a while, get tired often, and are coughing, talk to your doctor about the possibility you could have valley fever.

Valley fever resources from San Luis Obispo County Public Health:
Valley Fever in SLO County: What You Need to Know
CA Dept. of Public Health: Increase in Reported Valley Fever Cases in California in 2017