Health officials warn of ‘Valley Fever’

State health officials Tuesday warned residents in areas including Monterey County to be on the lookout for Valley Fever, a potentially fatal fungal disease that has infected an increasing number of people in recent years.

Valley Fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, or cocci, is an illness caused by fungal spores that grow in the soil in parts of the Southwestern United States and Central and South America, according to the California Department of Public Health.

While Valley Fever is not transmitted from person to person, breathing in dust infected with the spores can cause flu-like symptoms that last a month or more.

Many people show no symptoms at all, but in some people it can develop into a more serious illness involving pneumonia and infection of the brain, joints, skin and other organs.

The state has designated August as Valley Fever Awareness Month to spread the word about the little known illness, which is often misdiagnosed.

“Valley Fever is an ongoing concern in California and other areas of the Southwestern United States,” State Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a statement today. “It is important for people living in Valley Fever areas to take steps to avoid breathing in dusty air, such as staying indoors when it is windy.” Those especially at risk include the elderly, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, and black and Latino residents. State health officials said the reasons why certain ethnic or racial groups are at greater risk are not yet clearly understood.

While Valley Fever cases are especially high in the southern Central Valley, areas including Monterey County have also had high rates of reported cases, officials said.

The number of Valley Fever cases diagnosed in the United States and in California has grown dramatically in recent decades. California, which had only 719 cases reported in 1998, reached a peak of 5,697 cases in 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reasons for the increase in cases remain unclear but could include changes in the rate of detection and diagnosis, higher numbers of people exposed due to travel or relocation and changes in environmental factors including rainfall and temperature, the CDC said.