We have all most likely heard of Lyme disease and West Nile virus. In southern California, one or two cases of West Nile are known to garner coverage from every local news outlet. Yet, have you heard of Valley Fever? It is a fungal infection unique to California’s central valley (and parts of the western US). Specifically called ccoccidioidomycosis or “cocci,” this disease is spread though microscopic spores in the fertile soil.
Though only 10% of those exposed to the spores are likely to fall ill, those who do will experience unrelenting: fever, weakness, headaches, dizziness, achy joints, cough, chest pain, and rashes, in the best case and seizures, organ failure, and fungal meningitis. Furthermore, the spore sac can propagate filing the entirety of a person’s lungs, exploding and filling them with millions of spores that can invade your bloodstream, organs, and cause a cranial herniation (where the brain swells until it eventually bursts out of the base of the skull). Even when death does not occur, Valley Fever, can linger for life, causing debilitating health with exorbitant treatment costs.
Though difficult to accurately track, it is estimated that cases increased from 2,271 to 22,641 from 1998 to 2011, according to the CDC). First diagnosed in 1893, Valley Fever had proven ubiquitous among the central valley, even effecting German POWs and Japanese individuals in internment camps during World War II. It even effect U.S. airmen in the first half of the 20th century, before they realized that paving the surround area proved to be a successful measure to stop the contagion.
The same, or any other protective measures, have not been provided for those incarcerated in the area’s abundant prisons. Over many years, a proverbial tug-of-war has occurred between various agencies, including the CDC, the California Department of Pubic Health, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, urging the California Department of Corrections (CDOC) to address the issue, to little or no avail. Further frustrating is the insistence (backed my medical science) that African Americans and individuals descending from the South Pacific and Latin America are at an astronomically higher likelihood to catch the disease, while the CDOC has done little to transfer these prisoners or address the issue, let alone acknowledge it.
Granted, in 2015 CDOC has finally begun to transfer high-risk prisoners, but are doing little else. While many deaths have occurred, it may be more important to consider the astronomical medical costs associated with treating those infected with cocci, both in the prison system and who have been released. Though exposed while in custody of the state, and often plagued with symptoms for the remainder of their lives, inmates who are exposed receive little help in custody and once release. It might be best to examine the case of Sika Eeaki, a man of Tongan descent who suffered with undiagnosed Valley Fever for nearly the entirety of his incarceration and, even after losing over 65 lbs. and running a fever of 104-105 for weeks. Though he was released two weeks early, he was remanded to the custody of the crippling costs of treating the lingering disease. Rising to (and likely above) $20,000, neither the state nor the CDOC has done anything to help him or other who become afflicted.
For more info, check out Eteaki’s story.
August 28, 2015 / Ryan Serey