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Feb 18, 2013 10:33 PM by Connie Tran, KSBY News

Valley Fever cases nearly 7x more in SLO Co. than in Santa Barbara Co. in 2012

Valley Fever is such a rare disease, it's only found in certain parts of the world. Unfortunately, that includes right here on the Central Coast. Close to 200 cases were reported in 2012, but an overwhelming majority was found specifically in San Luis Obispo County, as opposed to Santa Barbara County.

The numbers speak for themselves. In San Luis Obispo County, 163 cases were reported last year, and only 21 were reported in Santa Barbara County.

"The technical name is Coccidioidomycosis, Valley fever for short," said Dr. James Beebe, the Lab Director for the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Laboratory.

Valley Fever, as it is more commonly known, is a fungal disease and it lives in soil. It's an underground mold, which breaks into a spore.

Dr. Beebe said, "If you disturb the soil in endemic areas, you run the risk of people inhaling it. The spores that you inhale, germinate and begin to form the vegetated form of the fungus in your lungs."

The symptoms of Valley Fever emulate the flu.

"Usually a mild fever, and a dry cough," said Dr. Beebe.

But an extreme case can lead to skin lesions, chronic pneumonia, and sometimes, death.

Dr. Beebe continued, "We don't know how the organism is distributed, whether it's highly concentrated here, as opposed to Santa Barbara County."

What is known, are that the statistics drastically vary. Dr. Beebe suggests the vast comparison in numbers could be due to geography. The Valley Fever spore is known to live off of hot summers, thermic soils, few winter freezes, and alkaline soils- characteristics more descriptive of San Luis Obispo County than seaside Santa Barbara County.

Paige Batson, the Director of Disease Control and Prevention for Santa Barbara County said, "In Santa Barbara County, it's a more coastal area, and we do see a little more moisture. As I mentioned, the spore tends to live in more arid parts of the state."

Batson said it is possible that the fungus is evenly distributed among the two Central Coast counties' soil, it's just not as many cases are reported in Santa Barbara County.

She said, "often times when a person presents to their physician with flu like symptoms, the disease can go undetected because they're not testing for it. So unless somebody lives in an area where cases are more prevalent, they will usually resolve their infection and therefore go undetected."

Dr. Beebe and Batson do agree on one theory. They both said that Valley Fever is more prevalent in San Luis Obispo County perhaps because there are more activities, such as agricultural activities, in that county that disturb soil, thus releasing the spore into the air. Both also said that the best way someone can protect themselves from Valley Fever is to take precautions, especially when around soil. They advise to wear a respiratory mask if gardening or working in construction.

But both health officials said until extensive studies are done on every inch of land, the numeric mystery will remain.

"I really could not tell you," said Batson.

Dr. Beebe lamented, "the short answer is, we don't know."

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