Aug 28, 2012 2:46 PM by KSBY News, Carina Corral

Cases of rare disease 'surging tremendously' on the Central Coast

Valley fever is so rare it is only contracted in certain parts of the world.

Unfortunately, the Central Coast is becoming a hot spot.

Worldwide, the fungus that causes the disease is only found in northern Mexico and parts of Central and South America.

In the U.S., it is endemic in the southwest, Kern County and the Central Coast where cases are surging.

Todd Schaefer is a perfect example. The former professional volleyball player who now coaches Templeton High School players fears his own game clock may be running out.

"They gave me about ten years and it's coming up nine years this October and I'm not getting any better," he said.

Todd contracted Valley Fever while bulldozing an old road at his Creston vineyard.

It went misdiagnosed and untreated for a month and a half, long enough for the fungal infection to spread throughout his body, including his brain.

"The infectious disease doctor of 35 years at St. John's Medical Facility in Los Angeles came in and talked to us and said... we're not sure which is worse the side effects of the medications or the actual fungal parasite that is living in your body," said Todd's wife, Tammy.

The excessive pressure on his brain has given him a stroke and leaves him in constant pain and dizziness.

Todd is the worst case scenario.

Some people who get Valley Fever never know it. Others, if treated right away, can recover.

But how do you get it?

The microscopic spores, called Coccidioides, are embedded in the soil. They are released when the soil is disturbed, such as during construction projects or gardening. They become airborne and then inhaled. So how do you avoid it? Well, you cannot.

"You live here you are in essence exposed," said Dr. Jim Beebe, the Director of the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Laboratory whose own wife contracted valley fever while gardening in Los Osos.

Dr. Beebe said that locally cases have surged tremendously. In 2009, there were 87 cases reported in San Luis Obispo County. In 2011 there were 225. So far this year, more than 100 cases have been reported. Most of the cases are coming out of the northern portion of the county.

By stark contrast, in Santa Barbara County there were 21 cases reported in 2009, just 29 in 2011 and 17 so far this year.

The numbers cannot be explained and there and there is no cure.

"We hope for the future for a vaccine, but it's a forgotten illness," said Dr. Beebe.

Not to Todd Schaefer who everyday is reminded about the fungal parasite living in his body and the dream of getting back on the court with his players.

There is a doctor in Arizona currently working on a cure. Hear from him tomorrow in Part 2 of this series, plus how you can help make that cure a reality.

Also, in Part 2, Dr. Beebe gives KSBY's Carina Corral unprecedented access to the county's Bio-Safety Level 3 Laboratory where he is doing research of his own.

While you may not be able to avoid it, there are ways to try to protect yourself from Valley Fever:

-avoid dust clouds
- wear respirators -- or masks-- when digging up dirt
- wet down soil during windy conditions
- know valley fever symptoms --cough, rash, flu like symptoms-- so if you do contract it you can get treated right away

Click here for more information on Valley Fever.