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Cases of Valley Fever Have Increased by 10-Fold in Southwestern United States

Update Date: Mar 29, 2013 10:06 AM EDT

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of valley fever in some of the Southwestern United States have risen dramatically over the past decade. Officials are unsure about the specific cause for the fungal illness, but they warn that physicians should be on the look-out for symptoms of the potentially dangerous disease.

Valley fever, which is clinically called Coccidioidomycosis, is caused by breathing in a fungus called Coccidioides. The fungus lives in the soil in the southwestern United States, and enters the bodily system if it is kicked up, whether by feet or by the wind. Cases of the illness have risen nearly ten-fold from 2,265 in 1998 to over 22,000 in 2011. Of the cases, nearly all of them have been in Arizona or California. In fact, 66 percent of cases were in Arizona, 31 percent were in California, 1 percent were in Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, and just 1 percent of cases came from the remaining 45 states.

The recent increase in cases could be related to a number of factors. The weather may be changing where and how much of the fungus grows, there may be an influx of new residents in these areas, or it could simply be a result of a change in the way that the disease is reported and detected. According to The Los Angeles Times, Arizona and California have received grants to study this very illness.

"Valley Fever is causing real health problems for many people living in the southwestern United States," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement. "Because fungus particles spread through the air, it's nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure to this fungus in these hardest-hit states. It's important that people be aware of Valley Fever if they live in or have travelled to the southwest United States."

Most people who exhibit symptoms from the fungus have mild flu-like symptoms, but 40 percent of people who suffer from symptoms have been hospitalized; 1 percent of all people infected with the fungus die, according to NBC News. Those hospital visits can cause sufferers to be out of school or work for about two weeks, and cost an average of $50,000. It can spread to the skin, causing reddish or purplish bumps; to the lungs, causing pneumonia or painful lung cavities, which require surgery; or spread to the brain, causing meningitis and requiring immediate attention.

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