Southwestern fungus confirmed in 3 people in Mid-Columbia

Three illnesses related to a southwestern fungus have local health officials concerned that the fungus could be among us.

Dr. Larry Jecha, health officer for the Benton Franklin Health District, has declared coccidioidomycosis a reportable disease in the two counties to track whether the fungus causing the disease is in the Tri-Cities.

Coccidioidomycosis, also known as Valley Fever, is a fungal disease caused by Cocciodioides fungi. The fungi live in semi-arid areas and normally are found in the southwestern United States and Mexico, but so far haven't been known to be in Washington.

Humans can become sick with coccidioidomycosis after inhaling fungal spores that become airborne when soil in which the fungus lives becomes disturbed, such as from construction or dust storms.

Coccidioidomycosis typically shows up as a respiratory infection similar to flu, with fever, cough, headache, rash and muscle aches.

It also can get into the body in other ways and cause skin lesions, central nervous system infections such as meningitis, and bone and joint infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

But coccidioidomycosis isn't dangerous to most of the people who come into contact with spores. About 60 percent of people who become infected will have no symptoms at all, and only a very small number of people will become seriously ill, the CDC said.

Jecha said the respiratory form can look like pneumonia, which often will prompt doctors to prescribe antibiotics because they wouldn't normally consider that the cause could be a fungus not ordinarily found in the Tri-Cities.

But antibiotics only kill bacteria, not fungi, and won't work on coccidioidomycosis. What people infected with the fungal spores need is anti-fungal medications, Jecha said.

So he is putting out an alert to local medical providers in part to get them thinking about coccidioidomycosis when they encounter pneumonia that doesn't respond to antibiotics.

Making it a reportable disease -- which means doctors who encounter the illness must report it to the health district -- also helps health officials to track incidents and determine how widespread the fungus might be, he said.

Of the three confirmed cases -- in which the patients tested positive for coccidioidomycosis -- in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, two people were hospitalized, Jecha said.

None of them recently had traveled to an area where the fungus regularly is found, leading local health officials to think the fungus is present in the Mid-Columbia, Jecha said.

Although soil samples were taken, there currently exists no test to pick out and identify Cocciodioides fungi in the soil, although the University of California, Davis is working on one, Jecha said.