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Windy weather brings concerns about Valley Fever

Dust obscures the distance at the vacant lot on Brimhall Road on Monday, March 27, 2017. (KBAK/KBFX)

Monday's windy weather across Kern County brings more concerns about Valley fever. The illness is caused by spores in the soil, and the chance of new cases goes up when wind whips up dust.

Kern County health officials say the public needs to stay on the alert, they stress that it's important to get checked for Valley fever, and add that a patient may have to ask for the test.

Valley fever is a fungal lung infection, and Kern County Health Officer Dr. Claudia Jonah says speak up if you're being treated for a respiratory-type illness that just doesn't go away.

"If that happens, you need to be insistent on that, especially if you're given the proper treatment for what it seems to be, and you're not getting better," Dr. Jonah said, "You need to insist on being treated for Valley fever, as well."

Alex Dominguez said he was lucky to get the right diagnosis and treatment after he collapsed at work, and was rushed to the hospital.

"I almost died," he described. "I got really sick. I work out here in the Elk Hills oil fields." Dominguez says he was in bad shape for about nine months. "I'm grateful to God that I'm alive," he said.

Kern County is one of the few areas where Valley fever is found. The infection is caused by a fungus that lives in the soil, mostly in California and Arizona.

Breathing in dust can bring the spores into the lungs. Dr. Jonah says most patients who get sick end up with respiratory symptoms, but sometimes other organs are affected.

Health experts say Valley fever can often be misdiagnosed because the symptoms are similar to other illnesses. They list the common symptoms as fatigue, cough, fever, muscle aches, shortness of breath, and sometimes a rash on the upper body or legs.

Kevin Schofield says he got tested for Valley fever when he was sick. "I had a real bad lung thing, turned out to be pneumonia," he told Eyewitness News. "So, they tested me for (Valley fever) then -- but, no." He also works in an oilfield, where conditions can be dusty.

Dr. Jonah says the number of cases in Kern County has gone up.

"Over the past several months, probably close to approaching a year now, we've seen an increased number of cases," she told Eyewitness News on Monday.

With the cause of Valley fever lurking in the soil, Eyewitness News asked if there was a risk for more infections during dry-weather years, when the soil is dustier.

"We actually were initially concerned that with the extended years of drought conditions, we would have more and more cases," Dr. Jonah said, "that did not seem to be the issue." So, she says the recent wet winter is no reason to think the number of cases will go down.

Health experts say about 60 percent of the people who get infected with Valley fever actually don't get sick. Others suffer with the respiratory symptoms, and Dr. Jonah says "every once in a while it affects other organs."

She says pneumonia will respond to antibiotics, but Valley fever is a fungus, so antibiotics won't work. So, if a patient is getting that treatment, and still not improving, they need to ask for a Valley fever test.

"It's extremely important that everybody be aware," she said. "Because for that small number of people that go on to get severe illness, we do firmly believe that if they get an early diagnosis, they're probably going to do better."

She said the earlier the patient gets the right treatment for Valley fever, the less likely they are to have long-lasting impacts from the illness.

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