Soil samples being collected in the Mid-Columbia may help health officials learn more about a little known health risk here, valley fever.
In the past five years, eight cases of valley fever have been diagnosed in Benton, Franklin, Yakima and Walla Walla counties, with one Walla Walla County patient dying, according to the Washington Department of Health.
But only in the past year have the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a way to test soil for the fungus that causes the disease.
That’s how it’s helped confirm that people with the illness in the Mid-Columbia were infected here and not from travel to places where it is more common, like Arizona and Southern California.
The CDC, state Department of Health and the Benton Franklin Health District are sampling soil to learn more about the location and prevalence of the fungus in the Mid-Columbia. And they are educating the public, doctors and veterinarians about the disease, which is a reportable illness.
Animals, particularly dogs but also horses, cats, llamas and other mammals, are susceptible too.
The public is invited to an open house to learn more from 7 to 9 p.m. May 28 at the Benton Franklin Health District office, 7102 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick. Human and animal health care professionals were invited to lectures Wednesday night in the Tri-Cities.
The illness is caused by breathing in spores of the fungus, which may be more likely when dirt is disturbed by activities from construction to riding dirt bikes. An open wound also may be infected by the fungus.
About 60 percent of people infected with valley fever never develop symptoms. Others may have mild flu-like symptoms as the body fights off the infection, such as fatigue, fever and a cough. They also may have a rash, headache, body aches, night sweats or shortness of breath.
But a small percentage of people with symptoms may develop serious or long-term problems in their lungs. Even fewer people may have the infection spread from their lungs to other parts of the body, such as skin, joints or the spinal cord.
The disease typically has symptoms that mimic other, more common respiratory infections like influenza. But people who have severe or a long-term recurring illness may want to bring up the possibility of valley fever with their doctor, said Hanna Oltean, an epidemiologist for the state.
Of particular concern are patients diagnosed with pneumonia who do not improve as expected with a normal course of antibiotics. They could be infected with the fungus that causes valley fever, said Dr. Amy Person, the Benton Franklin Health District officer.
A blood test is available to check for valley fever, and it can be treated with anti-fungal medicine in people and animals. The earlier treatment starts, the more effective it is, Person said.
Symptoms in dogs may include coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, said Ron Wohrle, a public health veterinarian for the Department of Health.
He’s been collecting samples of blood from dogs seen by local veterinarians to check for antibodies to valley fever as part of an ongoing study.
Once people or animals are infected, they become immune and don’t develop valley fever again.
Although the risk in the Mid-Columbia is thought to be very low, anyone can get valley fever, even young and healthy people, according to the Department of Health. Those at higher risk for severe illness include people with diabetes, pregnant women, people taking corticosteroid therapy, people with weakened immune systems and people of African or Filipino descent.
People with outdoor jobs that generate dust may be more likely to be exposed.
Some area doctors have said they have seen cases that might have been valley fever in the Mid-Columbia as long as 50 years ago, Person said.
But previously, evidence of the fungus had only been seen in areas far from Washington, making the recent discovery of the fungus here puzzling, said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer. In addition to Arizona and southern California, where the climate and geography are similar to the Mid-Columbia, it also is present in Central and South America.
A CDC group led by Ana Litvintseva took a method developed by Translational Genomics to detect the fungus, then adapted it through a complicated process to extract DNA from the soil.
Soil samples collected from the areas where people with valley fever believed they might have been exposed in the Mid-Columbia have turned up soil with the fungus.
Now the CDC, state and local health district are collecting soil samples from areas in the Mid-Columbia with similar types of soil to see if they also have the fungus, allowing them to map its location.
Typically it is found in salty, alkaline soils, said Orion McCotter, a CDC epidemiologist. Yet, it can be found in one place but be absent a few feet away.
Wednesday samples were being collected at the Horn Rapids Park on Highway 225 north of Benton City.
“We’re still learning about the fungus and its presence in our state, and we’ll continue studying it to better understand who is at risk,” Lofy said.