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What Arizonans need to know about Valley fever

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PHOENIX — The Valley is booming. People are arriving from all corners of the nation and different parts of the world to start a new life.

However, there is something the out-of-towners need to know as they are putting down stakes in the Valley of the Sun. There is something in the air. It can make a person sick, and left untreated it can develop into a respiratory-damaging virus that has been known to kill. It’s called Valley fever.

Dr. John Galgiani is the pre-eminent authority on the disease. As head of the Valley Fever Center at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, he is on the cutting edge of research into Valley fever. He is working to develop a vaccine to treat the lung infection.

Valley fever comes from spores that grow in the droppings of rodents, usually in wet seasons — for the Valley, that’s the monsoon season (which runs from June 15 to Sept. 15) and winter.

“When it rains in the winter time we think that stimulates the growth of the fungus in the soil. So in the subsequent season when things dry out there are more spores to get into the air,” Galgiani said.

Though thought to be carried by dust, the spores are actually in the air at any given time.

“Spores can get into the air and stay suspended for long periods of time,” he said.

Once spores are inhaled, Valley fever goes into action.

“There is an incubation time from the time you inhale the fungus into your lungs and getting sick and that’s about one-to-three weeks,” Galgiani said.

He recommended that someone who starts to feel ill pay attention to symptoms.

“Symptoms are often like pneumonia: chest pain, cough, weight loss, night sweats, joint pains in arms and legs, rashes and feeling very fatigued.”

Anybody is at risk of coming down with the fungal lung infection, but, as with many viruses, pregnant women are at a higher risk. The risk of a severe infection is most likely in the third trimester of pregnancy or immediately after giving birth.

Jodie Snyder with Banner Health/University Medical Center in Phoenix pointed out that students at the University of Arizona have a four-times higher risk of being exposed to the spores. They are tested five times as frequently.

Getting a diagnosis of a Valley fever infection is important. Treatment can begin early and the severity of the infection can be headed off.

“If you get pneumonia in Phoenix there’s a 30 percent chance it’s due to Valley fever, so knowing about this problem is very important … And we are impacted by this more than any part of the country,” Galgiani said.

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