(CBS News) PASO ROBLES, Calif. — The long drought is easing in much of the country, but not west of the Mississippi, where it is still bone dry, according to a report Thursday by the federal government.
That may be a factor in the spike in valley fever, a little-known illness that is spread by dust in the air. It’s often misdiagnosed, and there is no cure.
Todd Scully is a winemaker in Paso Robles, Calif. He cannot taste his own wine because of the medication he’s taking to fight the mysterious fungal infection known as valley fever.
“It’ll change your life, it’s as simple as that,” Scully says, adding he’s in “constant pain.” “Sometimes it’s excruciating, sometimes — it’s always a dull roar.”
Valley Fever is caused by soil fungus in California’s Central Valley and Arizona. The tiny spores can be inhaled after they’re kicked up by wind or construction. Early symptoms resemble flu, but it can spread to the spine and liver.
One-hundred-fifty-thousand people get valley fever each year; 160 die. That’s rare compared to other diseases, but valley fever cases have jumped 900 percent between 1998 and 2011. It’s a bigger threat than West Nile virus and Lyme disease.
Population growth and drier, dustier conditions in the Southwest are factors in the rise. Valley fever forced California to begin moving 3,300 prison inmates out of the San Joaquin Valley. The disease killed 62 of them.
“I think suddenly people realized this was an ongoing problem,” said Dr. John Galgiani, the director of the Valley Fever Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.
Arizona accounts for 66 percent of valley fever cases. Many show no symptoms.
“But a small percentage of people get really serious problems, when the fungus either doesn’t go away in your lungs, or it moves through the blood stream to other parts of the body, like the brain or bones or the skin,” Galgiani says.
Scully has had valley fever for 10 years. It’s spread to his nervous system.
“I know it’s compromising my life, and I know it’ll probably end my life sooner than later,” he says.
His wife Tammy now tastes his wine for him. He says he will continue making it for as long as he can.
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