Aug 29, 2012 3:08 PM by KSBY News, Carina Corral

The fight to fund a cure for Valley Fever may be in your hands while cases 'surge tremedously'

There is a desperate fight underway to find a cure for Valley Fever, especially following a spike in cases locally.

In 2009 in San Luis Obispo County, there were 87 cases reported. In 2011 that number jumped to 225. So far this year, more than 100 cases have been reported. Most cases are coming out of north county.

It is a much different story in Santa Barbara County where 21 cases were reported in 2009, 29 in 2011 and just 17 so far this year. The numbers have stumped researchers, both locally and nationwide, who are studying the airborne virus caused by a spore that lives in the ground called coccidioides.

"It's a fungal parasite that lives in your body and you are the host and once it's inside your body it will remain there forever," said Tammy Schaefer, whose husband, Todd, has the disease. It laid dormant is his body for years. He just recently started to show symptoms.

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

It spread to his entire body, including his brain where he has fluid build up that has given him a stroke and leaves him in constant pain and dizziness. Once a professional volleyball player who now coaches Templeton High School players, he spent the better part of this year in a hospital bed.

He contracted it doing construction work on his Creston vineyard. Coccidioides grows in the soil of dry, low rainfall areas. When the soil is kicked up, especially during dry, windy conditions, the spore becomes airborne and then inhaled.

In the Bio-Safety Level 3 Laboratory at the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, where news cameras have never been allowed before, researchers are growing the fungus trying to determine how soil tests can detect if the fungus is growing in certain areas.

Every precaution is taken with the spore to make sure there are no accidents.

"{We} keep it under lock and key even when we're incubating it like this," said Dr. Jim Beebe.

There is strict access to the lab and everyone entering has to wear protective gear that includes lab coat and a respirator to help limit the exposure to the spore. In the real world, there are not gowns, high grades masks and a lock and key; nonetheless, there are ways to protect yourself.

Those who work around dirt --construction workers, growers, even gardeners-- are at most risk.

A lower grade, more comfortable mask than what is used in the lab can help. So can watering down dirt to try to limit the spore from going airborne.

Still, there is no guarantee said the Director of the Valley Fever Center at the University of Arizona.

"The risk of getting Valley Fever in San Luis Obispo County is not so different from the risk of getting it in Kern County or Phoenix or Tucson," he said Dr. John Galgiani, cases where Valley Fever numbers are through the roof.

In the U.S., it is endemic in the southwest, Kern County and the Central Coast. The population here is smaller, which is the only reason the case numbers are not higher.

Dr. Galgiani said he close to a cure. "It's an active project, but it's moving slowly due to a lack of funding."

The problem with getting federal funding for a cure is that Valley Fever affects such a small part of the population, about 200,000 people nationwide, it is often overlooked and forgotten. Dr. Galgiani said the Food and Drug Administration refers to these types of drugs as the "orphan drug."

"200,000 may sound like large number, but it's a very small number compared to drugs to treat diabetes or weight loss or things like that where you measure the market size in billions of people," he said.

Doctors, researchers and patients urge people to contact your local politicians to push for more funding. "Talking to congressmen and telling them it is a problem when drugs for small markets don't get developed simply because the business model is not large enough," said Dr. Galgiani.

"We're close. We're really close with this thing. We just need a big push to get over the hurdles," said Todd Schaefer.

In the meantime, there are ways to effectively treat valley fever, if it is caught in its early stages. The best protection against the disease is to know the symptoms -- rash, dry cough, flu like symptoms-- and get treated early.

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