BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — In December 1977, a sudden wind erupted in the parched San Joaquin Valley of central California and, in one of the rare fireworks of nature that families speak about for generations, it whipped up clouds of dust that rolled like enormous opaque waves for hundreds of miles.
And as the winds blew, medical researchers believe, they lifted a microscopic organism from the soil that would kill at least 20 persons and make hundreds sick.
A few years earlier, a group of students from Queens College in New York City came to a town in northern California for an archeological dig among some Indian ruins. Sixty of the students later came down with identical illnesses, inspiring jokes, which some researchers now say could have a semblance of truth, that they were victims of the Indians whose graves they were disturbing.
According to researchers, in each instance the people who became ill - and died, in the case of the 1977 storm - were victims of a curious regional disease peculiar to the American Southwest that is now being attacked in an unusual collaboration by the military, medicine, community leaders, academia and the California Legislature.
It is called valley fever, and it haunts residents of scores of communities in California, Arizona and, to a lesser extent, New Mexico and Texas.
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