People are now looking into fungal infections and how these can affect the human population. The diseases they bring are becoming a growing threat that has been brought about by climate change. With the extreme weather conditions and warmer temperatures, the fungus that causes valley fever can now be seen in a dozen states, but most of the reported cases are in California and Arizona.
The HBO series The Last of Us is gaining popularity because people are now starting to think if this could even be linked to some form of reality. The show is based on the hit video game of the same name. In the story, the people become zombies after they became infected with a fungus similar to the real-life Ophiocordyceps fungus, one that can take over the bodies of ants.
While a fungal zombie apocalypse may never happen in real life, illnesses and diseases caused by fungi have become widespread. Research has been done and findings somewhat point to one culprit – climate change. They have proliferated the planet simply because of the changes taking place in the atmosphere.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment said that cases of coccidioidomycosis infection, or what is known as valley fever in layman’s terms, have increased almost fivefold in the last 2 decades.
All About Valley Fever
Valley fever comes when the person inhales spores of the Coccidioides fungus. This is found in the soil in parts of the southwestern United States. Right now, around 97 percent of all U.S. infections have been recorded in states such as Arizona and California. Hence, the name because it gets its moniker from California’s San Joaquin Valley.
The spores from the fungi infiltrate the air when the soil is disturbed. This happens when there are strong winds or other activities such as farming, construction, and biking or ATV traffic. Once the spores rise from the dry soil and into the air, the fungus spores can get into the lungs and infect it. This causes respiratory symptoms such like cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, headache, night sweats, muscle or joint aches, and rashes on the upper body or legs. This was per the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC).
About 60 percent those who get valley fever exhibit zero symptoms or only very mild flu-like symptoms. So, they often fail to visit a health specialist, the agency said. For the more serious cases, however, symptoms may take months or even a year before these disappear.
The CDC has made estimations and said that between 5 and 10 percent of those who have been infected develop serious or long-term problems in their lungs. In 1 percent of cases, the infection manages to spread from the lungs to other parts such as the brain and spinal cord, skin, or bones and joints. This can be life-threatening when it happens.
Every year in the U.S., there are around 200 deaths from this. Just over 20,000 of the cases were reported in 2019, as per the federal health agency.
The Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona says that this kind of infection is not contagious. This means that it cannot be transmitted like the common type of flu.
Climate Change May Be the Culprit to the Mutating Fungus that Expand in Areas Where They Thrive
Research has been conducted the findings were published last January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Thet found that rising global temperatures and climate change could be why there is a rise in this fungus-related disease.
On lab analyses made to study the effects of heat stress on another type of disease-causing fungus called Cryptococcus deneoforman, the authors from the Duke University School of Medicine said that higher heat conditions may hasten genetic mutations in fungi. These genetic changes have enabled fungi to be more resistant to heat, which means that these also have more potential to cause diseases.
“Increasing global temperature may affect the fungal evolution in unpredictable directions,” Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, said. He is the chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He spoke about this in a press release.
Dr. Casadevall was not part of the study. He also said, “As the world warms, transposons [genetic elements] in soil fungi like Cryptococcus neoformans could become more mobile and increase genomic changes in ways that could enhance virulence and drug resistance. One more thing to worry about with global warming.”
Scientific modeling published the August 2019 issue of GeoHealth made a prediction about temperature increases and shifts in precipitation. These may cause valley fever infections to rise by as much as 50 percent by 2100, as the fungus travels northward and into drier western areas such as Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
“Climate change is causing more extremes in weather, so you’re getting conditions where the soil becomes extremely dry. [Then] the soil gets kicked up by the winds, spreading more fungus spores,” said Afif El-Hasan, MD. He is a pediatric asthma doctor with Kaiser Permanente San Juan Capistrano in Southern California as well as a spokesperson for the American Lung Association. The dry periods promote the spreading of these spores while extreme wet periods promote growth, he added.
Valley Fever – Underrecognized and Misdiagnosed by Many
Valley fever can be misdiagnosed because the symptoms are very much like other respiratory diseases.
“A lot of fungus infections are mistaken for bacterial infections, and the doctors end up treating what they think is a bacterial pneumonia,” Dr. El-Hasan explained. “I think some doctors have a knee-jerk response if there’s a problem in the lungs, and they treat it with antibiotics for a bacterial infection, when they actually need antifungal treatment.”
The disease has also been mistaken as cancer, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. This was stated by Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
The center also said that this can be confirmed through a blood test. Doctors can also check the lungs with a chest X-ray, inquire about travel history in the Southwest, or even perform a skin test to show exposure.
El-Hasan said that doctors need to consider the geographic area where patients work and what they do for a living, because in some cases such as farming, construction, and firefighting, people can breathe in these harmful spores.
The most vulnerable to the disease are the following: the very young, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, as per El-Hasan.
How to Prevent Valley Fever
While vaccines are still being developed, there is no way to protect yourself right now. Those who work or live in high-risk areas and are around blowing dust should wear masks for further protection.
“With global warming increasing, I expect we’ll be seeing an increase in the frequency of these valley fever cases,” El-Hasan said.