Assemblymen ask state for $7 million in fight against valley fever to fuel research, spread awareness

Bakersfield Assemblymen Vince Fong and Rudy Salas submitted a bipartisan $7 million budget proposal Monday that would, if approved, help combat valley fever, an insidious respiratory disease endemic to Kern County.

It would be the largest amount of money California has ever designated at one time to research and raise awareness of the disease, which in 2017 infected at least 5,121 people in California, according to state data.

The proposal seeks a $3 million grant to fund treatment, research and outreach at the Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical Center; $1 million for the California Department of Public Health to create an outreach and awareness campaign to educate the public about the disease; and $3 million for the University of California system to research  valley fever.

The funding request comes as valley fever cases are spiking statewide and spreading outside regions traditionally affected in the Central Valley. State health officials recorded a 34 percent increase in cases between 2016 and 2017, yet the state does not currently provide funding for valley fever outreach campaigns or research. Salas and Fong’s funding request would change that.

“The number of people affected continues to grow statewide, and yet this disease has historically lacked the attention and resources it needs to be fully addressed,” Salas said in a news release.

Valley fever, the common name for Coccidioidomycosis (or cocci for short), can be acquired by the simple act of breathing. It’s caused by a fungus that grows in loamy desert climates throughout the Southwestern United States. When the fungus is disturbed in the soil, often through agricultural tilling and construction, fungal spores can be swept into the wind and inhaled.

The majority of people who have valley fever — roughly 60 percent — don’t get sick, but others develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and extreme fatigue that can last months. It’s often misdiagnosed. In rarer cases, the spores can spread to the bloodstream and lead to a lifetime of health issues, sometimes resulting in death.

A letter Salas wrote in February requesting $4 million of the $7 million total, drew from The Center for Health Journalism’s years-long series “Just One Breath,” which revealed that a typical hospital stay to treat valley fever — at $100,000 on average — is costlier to treat than any of California’s 25 most common conditions requiring hospitalization.

“The cost for a single valley fever workers’ compensation claim averages $60,000, a number that can significantly increase into the millions in extreme cases,” Salas wrote in the letter.

The portion of total funding allocated to public health would continue efforts Salas began last year when he introduced AB 1279, an ambitious piece of legislation that sought to address reporting inconsistencies among local, state and federal agencies while allocating millions to launch a comprehensive state awareness program. It gained unanimous bipartisan support, but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, citing a lack of funding in the budget.

Studies have shown that when an at-risk population is educated about the dangers and symptoms of valley fever, they are more likely to be accurately diagnosed quickly — reducing the chances of complications occurring.

“Our region and our state have continued to see a rising number of cases of valley fever,” Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine said. “It is critical that we dedicate additional resources toward educating the public about valley fever to help improve outcomes for valley fever patients and prevent infection whenever possible.”

The $3 million allocated to the Valley Fever Institute would help fuel studies that Dr. Royce Johnson, the institute’s clinical director, has already begun. The studies could answer the question of why some people who inhale fungal spores get sick, while others exhibit no symptoms at all.

Johnson said finding the answer to that question could help researchers develop a vaccine.

“Kern Medical [Center] has a long history caring for those suffering from valley fever, and has been a leader in providing high quality care for those impacted by the disease,” Fong said. “Our $3 million funding request continues to build this critical state and local partnership so that we are expanding access to quality care for so many patients in need of treatment due to valley fever.”

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