The next time you take a deep breath on a windy day, you may want to cover your mouth. Ventura County has seen a three-fold increase in the number of cases of valley fever since September 2017, resulting so far in five deaths due to complications.

From Sept. 1, 2017, to Feb. 28, 2018, there have been 371 cases of valley fever in Ventura County, according to Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County Public Health Officer. For the same period the previous year, there were 122 total. The five people who died were elderly.

valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is a disease caused by the fungus Coccidioides immitis, also referred to simply as “cocci.” Most people who breathe in the spores experience no symptoms at all; in fact, many residents of the western United States have developed resistance from simply being exposed over time.

Those who are infected, however, are infected through the lungs and usually recover after a period during which they show cold- or flu-like symptoms. Some people with a weakened immune system, however, may experience deadly complications from the fungus spreading through the body. Symptoms usually appear one to three weeks after infection and can spread to the skin, bones, lymph nodes and even the brain through the spinal cord, causing a potentially deadly and chronic case of meningitis. Thus far, five of the confirmed cases have resulted in cocci meningitis, according to Levin.

The cocci fungus lives in soil, but especially undisturbed soil. Cocci is usually not found in fields that undergo regular plowing, says Dr. Levin, but soil that hasn’t been touched for a long period of time could host the fungus.

The obvious event that comes to mind, which exposed previously undisturbed soil on hillsides and around homes, was the Thomas Fire, which torched parts of Ventura County from early December 2017 through to January, but Levin says that no correlation between the increase in cocci cases and the fire has been found.

“The word I’d like to accentuate is ‘possibility.’ Cause and effect have not been shown,” said Levin. “It’s true that there’s been a fire and it’s true we’ve seen an increase in cocci cases, but we can’t say yet for sure that the fire is responsible for it.”

In fact, further deepening the mystery, Ventura County isn’t the only California locale to suffer from a dramatic increase in valley fever cases. Comparing January 2017 to January 2018, the state has seen a 233 percent increase in cases; Kern County alone had a 402 percent increase, and Ventura County a staggering 588 percent increase, says Levin.

State agencies have been taking serious interest in solving the issue. In February, Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Kern County, and Congressman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, penned an editorial for the Fresno Bee in which they called valley fever a “silent epidemic.” The two have thrown support behind Assembly Bill 1880 and AB 1881, which would create a system for better reporting suspected valley fever cases.

There are ways to increase your personal defense against the fungus, says Levin, one of which involves informing contractors on proper safety protocols when operating machinery that disturbs soil. Spraying dust down with a water hose could help prevent the fungus from going airborne, and having workers wear particulate-matter masks — such as the N95 masks that became a popular fashion accessory in Ventura County for the month of December — would help.
For the individual, Levin says that being aware of the wind conditions outdoors is important.

“If a day is particularly dusty, you should stay indoors; and if you have to go outdoors and it’s really dusty, you should consider wearing a mask,” said Levin. “Something I do is when you’re driving and you pull up on the edge of a field, or on a dusty day, keep that recirculate button on.”