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September 01, 2021

Danger in the Dust: Why Valley Fever is a national problem

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) – The coronavirus pandemic is intersecting with another respiratory illness endemic to Arizona: Valley Fever. It’s caused by a fungus in our soil.

Jeff Winebrenner was new to Southern Arizona, having moved here for a teaching job in Marana. He was young and healthy, until he breathed in some dust in 2012.

“It’s not the kind of thing you want to think about or talk about to be honest,” said Winebrenner, who’s been suffering from side effects of Valley Fever ever since.

The infection from spores in that dust reached his brain. He couldn’t walk, had IVs around the clock, and even lost his hearing. Years later, he’s stabilized, but still struggling. Yet, he’s grateful, because he knows he wouldn’t be here at all, if it weren’t for one crucial decision.

“Luckily, I had a very experienced doctor who tested me for Valley Fever – and it was,” said Winebrenner.

He wants to make sure anyone else who has symptoms gets a test.

“If you feel sick and you aren’t getting a diagnoses, you need to go in and ask for a test of your titre levels for Valley Fever,” said Winebrenner. “Being your own advocate is huge, because if you don’t go and get the test, no one will know.”

Jeff’s story is not surprising to Congressman from Arizona David Schweikert.

“I met a young man who had most of his spine dissolved by the Valley Fever. His spine was being held together by pins and needles,” said Rep. Schweikert, who co-founded the Congressional Valley Fever Task Force, bringing national attention to an “orphan disease,” one that has largely been ignored because it’s regional. But the implications for health and even business are huge: in the billions of dollars.

“It affects almost the entire nation if they have a nexus to us here in the desert southwest. The number of people who come through Tucson or the Valley or California, and are sitting someplace in New York and there’s this funny scar on their lung – how many of those doctors have even heard of Valley Fever?” asked Rep. Schweikert.

He wants to make sure Arizonans spread the word to anyone we know who has visited our area and now has coronavirus-like symptoms. It could be another respiratory illness we know all too well in Southern Arizona.

“Some individuals who think this damage could be COVID – it actually could be valley fever, or vice-versa,” said Rep. Schweikert.

It is possible, but extremely rare, to contract COVID and Valley Fever at the same time. If you’ve had Valley Fever, you’re not more susceptible to COVID. It’s a popular belief that you won’t get Valley Fever after living here for a few years. The median diagnosis time for residents is actually 12 years, and the fungus can lie dormant in your body. It is not contagious, and there’s no real way to prevent it, but you can help by avoiding dust.

Congressman Schweikert is optimistic a vaccine will be ready in the next five or six years. He says Congress approved a couple more million dollars for research, and there’s progress in testing and treatment.

“We have come lightyears,” Rep. Schweikert said.

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence is right here in Tucson. A wealth of information can be found on their website.

Danger In The Dust Podcast

For comprehensive information on Valley fever – check out our brand new podcast “Danger In the Dust,” available now in the Apple Podcasts app, iTunes store or Google Podcasts app. Just search for “KOLD News 13” and click “Danger in the Dust.”

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