Just One Breath: GOP Whip Could Effect Real Change with Valley Fever

Published on
April 26, 2013

The Reporting on Health Collaborative heard earlier this week that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, was going to meet with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and then issue a statement. Worth a story?

My advice to our team on Monday:

If he just promises to sponsor legislation, no story. If he just says he and the CDC are committed to fighting valley fever, no story. If he outlines concrete steps to take but doesn't show any progress toward taking them, no story. We want to report on a move forward, not just more talk, I think.

I didn’t have much contact with McCarthy before listening in to the call he set up on Monday. I knew he had a bit of clout in Congress. He’s the GOP Whip, after all, a post held by some of the biggest names in Republican history: Trent Lott, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay.

But I didn’t want to assume that any pronouncement was worthy of coverage – even if we have a greater interest in the topic than most reporters. We have been breaking news for months with our “Just One Breath” series, which documents the lack of resources, research dollars and public awareness of the devastating disease of valley fever. This seemed like the recognition sought by many fighting to overcome years of official neglect of these issues.  And it was intriguing that a leading Republican would be interested in championing an issue that had earlier been advanced principally by State Sen. Michael J. Rubio, a rising star in the state Democratic Party before his abrupt resignation in February. Did this mean that an even more influential politician would carry the torch on valley fever and potentially create a rare opportunity for bipartisanship collaboration among San Joaquin Valley political leaders?

Hearing McCarthy on the phone, I realized that this guy could actually set some meaningful policy and funding changes in motion if he pulled the right levers. His first lever, it seems, is the CDC.

"The CDC can project a dirt storm like we've had in the years before two days ahead of time. You could do that with schools so you're not outside,” he said.  “We could prevent a lot just by awareness.”

We did write a story. McCarthy hit my bar of “concrete steps” when he said that the CDC was going to come out to Bakersfield to work with public health officials and the public on better identifying and tracking the disease. By some estimates, 90% of valley fever cases are never diagnosed or diagnosed as some other disease entirely, meaning patients don’t get the care they need or, in some cases, die of a mysterious cause. This CDC symposium, which McCarthy promised would happen in September or October, is the first step toward a study on valley fever treatment protocols.

"What I would like to do in the short-term is a randomized clinical trial, because no facts are proven out there for the best treatment for valley fever," he said. "It's still unknown."

Did you hear that? McCarthy said something that you rarely hear when people talk about medical treatments: “no facts are proven out there.”

Usually, we tend to believe what might be called the word-of-mouth clinical trial. People suffer from the disease. People are given certain drugs. Their symptoms improve over time, and therefore the drugs must work. You hear that your friend took Drug A to treat Disease B, and so when you suffer from Disease B, you ask for Drug A. This is the loop that leads people to ask for antibiotics when their children have a runny nose. Some doctors acquiesce – or even actively promote the antibiotic option – as a way to keep their patients happy, knowing that the child will get better on their own.

McCarthy, rightly, wants to see some actual evidence for the antifungal drugs being used to treat valley fever patients.

The other thing that struck me about Monday’s call was that reporters on the call talked about how they personally had suffered from valley fever or that a loved one had. Clearly, the disease has cut a very wide swath through communities in California and Arizona, and I got the sense that McCarthy actually understands that.

McCarthy, for example, said he is going to work with the CDC to try to lobby the FDA for a fee waiver to allow a rapid skin test to help detect whether a person has been exposed to valley fever. When reporters pressed McCarthy for details, he provided scientifically sound answers.

So, how far might this congressman go? He says he wants to fight a disease that has been neglected for decades. McCarthy has had one of the most rapid ascents in politics. He was the first freshman member of the California Assembly to become a GOP leader. He served from 2002 to 2006. He started his first term as Congressman in 2007, and he became Chief Deputy Whip for the GOP two years later. In January 2011, he took over as GOP Whip from Jim Clyburn.

So, we know he can make things happen. Let’s check back this summer and see what sort of progress he has made on his promises about valley fever. And, let’s see if some of the other political leaders in the San Joaquin Valley build on the opening he has created for a truly valley-wide solution.

Image by Monica's Dad via Flickr