(NewsNation) — Health officials are concerned that climate change is leading to an increase in valley fever, a fungal infection commonly found in the southwest.
There’s no need to worry about “The Last of Us” coming to life any time soon, but the threat from fungal infections is a real one.
Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, is caused by the fungus coccidioides. Spores from the fungus can be found on the ground or uprooted by things like construction work, human activity, or wind.
“This is a disease we’ve been tracking for a long, long time and actually the fungus that causes it was part of the offensive biowarfare program agents that were considered by several countries, including the United States,” Dr. Aileen Marty, infectious disease specialist and professor at Florida International University, told WGN Radio.
Coccidioides thrives in warm, dry environments, which is why it’s predominantly found in the desert regions of the southwest. But changing temperatures and shifting drought mean the fungus is moving beyond that area. Some scientists are predicting that it could be found as far north as the Canadian border by the end of the century.
People can develop Valley fever after inhaling coccidioides spores from the dirt. It’s considered endemic in the Southwest and many people experience mild symptoms or none at all.
But some people experience a more severe illness. The fungus can cause severe respiratory problems and some patients acquire a chronic form of pneumonia.
And for some, the fungus goes beyond the lungs, spreading to the spinal cord and brain. Once that happens, there is a 40% fatality rate. Those cases are rare, but researchers are still attempting to determine why some people develop such a damaging form of the disease when others don’t.
Marty said that the fungus, which is resistant to both temperature changes and salt, has even been found in sea mammals. In climates such as the hot, dry San Joaquin Valley in California, the fungus can spread through the air.
“It’ll be on the bones of an animal that died of it and when the wind blows, that fungus will then be available for somebody else to breathe in or other animals to breathe in,” Marty said. “More recently, we found that it can infect bats, and bats can act as a reservoir. We think that that’s one of the main ways in which it’s been spreading recently.”
Marty said it’s reportable in a number of states, but not all. The highest concentrations can be found in dry, desert-like environments where it can spread so easily.
“Another big issue with valley fever is that climate change, we really think that climate change is driving the spread of that particular fungus,” Marty said.
Symptoms of Valley fever include fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, headaches, night sweats, muscle aches or joint pain, and a rash on the upper body or legs. Symptoms typically begin within three weeks of being exposed, and those who live in or have traveled to the Southwest should see a doctor if they are experiencing those symptoms.