When Eugene “Gene” Butler felt sick several months ago, he thought it was the flu. He was tired, ran a fever, and had a cough.
It got better. Then it got worse.
The doctors ran several tests, believing Butler had Valley Fever, but it took days to confirm that.
“I went in and they looked at my lungs and they couldn’t determine what was wrong with me. They thought I had anything from lung cancer to TB to possibly Valley Fever,” the 74-year-old Mesa resident recalls. “In the beginning I was in isolation until they found out.”
Tests finally confirmed what doctors suspected. Butler joined the list of thousands of Arizona residents to contract Valley Fever in 2012.
Valley Fever hits people when they inhale the fungal spores found in stirred up dust.
Arizona rates of Valley Fever have increased greatly since laboratory reporting became available in 1997. In 2012, there were 12,920 cases, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. There were 16,472 cases in 2011.
While in most cases people are not even aware they are infected with the disease, there are some situations where victims get very, very sick.
That was Butler’s case. The previously-healthy world traveler ended up with double pneumonia. That led to heart failure and organ failure.
“They said a great deal of it was a result of the Valley Fever,” he said.
Dr. Edward Carter, Chief of the Pulmonary Division of Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, said the disease doesn’t trend toward any particular age group. Just this week, he diagnosed Valley Fever in a 12-year-old girl who was hiking when the wind picked up and the dust hit.
“I’ve seen mostly school-age kids, teenagers complain of feeling tired and having chest pain and I learn a couple weeks ago they had a fever and cough. They go on to get a rash on their legs … that sort of punches the diagnosis,” he said.
The rash isn’t always present with the disease, but when it appears, it can guide doctors to do a test for it, most often a blood test, he said.
A common misconception among Valley residents is that if you’ve lived in Arizona long enough you either won’t get it or you’ve already had it and you’re immune.
That isn’t the case, Carter said.
“You don’t have lifelong immunity,” he said, adding that initially you might not get it right away a second time, but, “The bottom line is if you’ve had Valley Fever, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it again.”
Butler — a 21-year-resident of Arizona — said he heard about the disease before his diagnosis but didn’t realize how it made people sick or that it had become so prevalent in Arizona.
Though testing has improved, Carter said, and could be linked to the increase cases of Valley Fever, he also suspects there are just more people getting the disease.
He advises residents to stay indoors when a dust storm warning is sounded.
“If you’re in a dust storm, or around a construction site, or if you’re pick-axing away at the soil, all those things are stirring up dust and the spores fly into the air,” he said.
It’s possible people are breathing in the spores every day in the Valley’s dusty environment, but not at a level to make them sick.
“There’s no way to totally prevent it. We can be inhaling spores anytime we get to our cars,” he said.
Jessica Rigler, bureau chief for epidemiology and disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said no research has been specifically done to connect Valley Fever with the dust storms or haboobs of late.
“It’s true there have not been any scientific studies completed to date that have demonstrated that dust storms are causing Valley Fever in people. However, we know Valley Fever is here. It’s in the soil here. So you have to assume as dust is being spread around you have a higher chance of breathing in the spores that make you sick,” she said. “It’s always good to stay inside in a dust storm, not just for Valley Fever, but you just don’t want those particles to get in your lungs.”
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