published on April 20, 2016 - 8:29 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
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Academics and researchers from California and Arizona gathered in Fresno recently to compare notes and discuss ways of addressing one of the region’s largest health threats.

Coccidioidomycosis, more commonly known as Valley fever, poses a severe health risk to residents, yet receives relatively little attention from the general public. To help change that trend and raise awareness for the condition, UCSF Fresno hosted a series of Valley fever related events earlier this month, including the annual meeting for the Coccidioidomycosis Study Group.

Comprised of physicians and clinicians from affected areas, the group celebrated its 60th annual meeting and first summit in Fresno two weeks ago. The decision to host the meeting locally is a result of the increased activity from area physicians treating the condition and should be taken as a good sign for the community, said Neil Ampel, president of the study group and a professor of infectious disease at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

“The organization was started in the mid-‘50s by a group of physicians interested in the disease,” he said. “We haven’t had much input from the Fresno community but that began to change a few years ago.”

Fresno County is a particular hotspot for the fungal infection, and Ampel said the study group was pleased to hear from more physicians and researchers in the area who are interested in bringing public attention to the condition.

Michael Peterson, chief of medicine at UCSF Fresno, agreed and said the local interest is necessary since Valley fever receives little attention from national funding groups.   

“It’s a challenge since Valley fever is an orphan disease. It doesn’t receive as much funding as more high profile diseases like West Nile Virus despite affecting more people each year,” he said.

Part of that is a result of the infection occurring primarily in the American Southwest and parts of Mexico. By only showing up in a few states, the disease is considered less of a threat to the overall population and often flies under the radar.

“People see it as a rare disease since many doctor’s throughout the country may never encounter it, but here, we see it every day,” Peterson said.

Researchers estimate that as many as 150,000 people each year are infected by coccidioides — the fungus responsible for Valley Fever. While many of the infected remain asymptomatic, the condition can result in prolonged, flu-like symptoms or even become life threatening.

Anyone who lives or travels through the Southwestern United States can become infected but it is most common in adults aged 60 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recent research has also shown African-Americans and Filipinos may be particularly susceptible and Peterson said more studies are currently being done to see what genetic factors may lead to a predisposition for the infection.

Other vulnerable groups include field workers; individuals living or working near a construction site and the Valley’s prison population.

“Every time the wind blows dirt around in the Valley, there’s the potential for those fungal spores to be set loose and breathed in,” he said.

Treatment for Valley Fever has advanced slowly, and physicians currently rely on fungal treatments and antibiotics. That method is far from ideal however, as the drugs used often rely on the body’s ability to eventually take over and begin fighting the infection itself.

For individuals with particularly severe cases, this can mean months or even a lifetime of treatment, Peterson said.

As the largest meeting of professionals focused on Valley fever, the Coccidioidomycosis Study Group’s annual event aims to help physicians share breakthroughs and infection treatment issues with each other. Ampel said it should also help to raise awareness within the community itself, a major hurdle since many within the region have only a vague understanding of the infection.

“[Valley fever] is very associated with eastern Fresno County and there’s lots of original research in the Valley,” he said. “It’s good to see the local medical community is very interested in making people more aware.

Among those studying the infection locally is Erin Gaab, a researcher with UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute.

She helped organize Valley fever Community Awareness Day at UCSF Fresno earlier this month and has previously published reports focusing on the psychosocial effects of the infection on local children and families.

“I first got involved in Valley fever research three years ago after being approached by a doctor at Valley Children’s Hospital,” she said. “He told us about Valley fever and the issues surrounding it in pediatric patients and I grew to realize very quickly that there was a great need for research in the area.”

Since then she has also worked to raise the disease’s profile within the Central Valley community and make residents aware of the public health risk.

While Valley Fever Awareness Day was been held at UC Merced’s campus in past years, Gaab said the venue switch to Fresno’s downtown medical campus was an improvement.

“We see some cases of Valley fever up in Merced but there are many more cases in the Fresno area,” she said. “It’s just a more appropriate venue for attracting community members and with the study group here at the same time, it really helped draw attention to research efforts.”

Going forward Gaab said she hopes to continue hosting the annual awareness day, and has plans to conduct a follow-up study for pediatric patients in the area.

“I’m just really please that there is an interest in learning about the disease,” she said. “It’s a bit of a shame that it’s not recognized more widely.”


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