A Sun City West physician said he believes the Phoenix area could see a sizable outbreak in valley fever cases stemming from Tuesday night’s haboob that sent dust spores airborne for hundreds of miles across Arizona — and possibly beyond.
Individuals who have symptoms that include a fever, chills, sweating and joint pain within the next few days and weeks may be experiencing the onset of valley fever, said Dr. Craig Rundbaken, who practices pulmonology and internal medicine at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West.
“We have to be watching now,” he said of the after-effects of Tuesday night’s dust storm, noting 40 percent of all individuals who inhaled dust spores could become ill. “There’s definitely risk for an outbreak after a storm like that.”
Rundbaken said those who have never experienced any symptoms of valley fever are most susceptible to contracting the disease, noting those who were previously infected and cleared typically don’t see symptoms return. But he said the hardest hit areas are typically the Sun Cities as many residents are older and have underlying medical problems.
Experts say individuals age 60 and older, as well as those of Native American, African or Filipino descent are more likely to develop a serious infection, as are those who have a weakened immune system and who take medications that suppress the immune system.
While valley fever symptoms can last quite some time, most cases are relatively mild and eventually go away on their own.
Rundbaken said the typical incubation period for valley fever is between seven and 31 days.
Those who are experiencing the symptoms should immediately visit a physician to determine whether it may be valley fever. While blood tests are given, Rundbaken said patients who have results that come back negative could still have valley fever as it’s not always traceable.
Two-thirds of all valley fever infections in the United States are contracted in Arizona — and Maricopa County is often considered ground zero, according to the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. The Tucson-based center at the University of Arizona is home to a number of physicians and researchers offering assistance to infected patients. Researchers are also studying ways to eventually cure the disease.
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is a fungal infection that starts in the lungs and is obtained by breathing in fungal spores found in dust. While dust particles can contain anywhere from 3 to 5 microns of fungal spores, Rundbaken said it takes only one to cause respiratory infection.
The Valley’s hot, arid climate that includes warm winters and little precipitation is perfect for spreading and breeding valley fever, according to Rundbaken. The low altitude in the central desert areas of Arizona also contribute to the disease’s spread.
“Anything that will exacerbate dust will exacerbate the number of potential valley fever cases we see,” Rundbaken said.
Rundbaken said there’s no cure for valley fever; at this point, physicians are taking all preventative measures in their attempts to neutralize the disease. Many patients require medication throughout their lifetime.
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.