Skip to content

The Mysterious Fungus Infecting the American Southwest

August 8, 2014

By Madeleine Thomas, The Atlantic

Barragan’s extensive exposure to the soil as a farmworker puts him at a higher risk of developing valley fever, but Ramos says they had never heard of the disease before.

“If we knew more about it, he probably would have been more careful,” Ramos says, translating for Barragan, who only speaks Spanish. “I hear ‘valley fever’ and all I think is ‘fever.’ So I’m thinking a cold. He probably had symptoms before and we didn’t know.” Barragan still works as a farm laborer, but his health scare was enough to convince him to start considering other work. “He’s learning English,” Ramos says. “He’s going to get a high school diploma, because he doesn’t want to be out in the fields anymore.”

While hospitalized, Barragan underwent a strict regimen of the antifungal fluconazole, delivered intravenously three days a week for three months. The medicine gave him seizures, and caused him to shed weight, about 50 pounds over the course of his stay. Because antifungals are rarely administered directly to the infection site—with the exception of shunts that convey them directly into the brain to combat meningitis—the hope is that enough can be pumped throughout the body to target wherever the fungus has spread. Sustained use of antifungals, whether orally or intravenously, can cause permanent kidney damage, however.  “With the oral medications, why it gets scary is that they see how much the patient can tolerate,” Emery says. “It’s not like with other drugs when they say, ‘OK, we know this body weight and we give them this specific amount of medication.’”

Barragan’s symptoms eventually cleared, but he is still supposed to take up to 10 pills of fluconazole daily for the next three years. He’s wary of experiencing any more side effects, like the fatigue that put him out of work for four months, but he considers himself fortunate—of the 10 other patients also in treatment for valley fever during his stay in the hospital, four of them died from “disseminated” disease, he says.

Disseminated valley fever might be one of the greatest conundrums surrounding the disease. It only occurs in 1 percent or less of infections, but if a patient is black or Filipino, the risk of developing valley fever is much higher. Its damage to the skeletal system, joints, lungs or meninges—the delicate membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord—is vicious, as the fungus can decompose the vertebrae, skull, long bones, like the femur and tibia, or the joints of the knees, wrists, ankles, and elbows. Meningitis, the most serious manifestation of disseminated cocci, happens if the fungus manages reach the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. To keep a patient alive, treatment must last a lifetime.

To read the full article, please go to: