A deadly fungal infection is spreading across the United States – and scientists believe it’s due to climate change.
Cases of ‘Valley Fever’ – which is 10 times more deadly than the flu – have increased 20 times since the turn of the century.
It is caused by the fungus Coccidioides, which releases spores into the air when the soil is disturbed. The spores are then inhaled by people, most often construction workers.
The fungus thrives in hot, dry environments and has been dubbed Valley fever because 97% of cases are in Arizona and California. But infections have started to appear in other parts of the country, and experts fear that by 2100 they will be endemic in 17 states.
It comes amid heightened fears over fungal outbreaks, following HBO’s hit doomsday show “The Last of Us”, which represents a fungus that turns victims into zombies.
The fungus spore is whipped into the air when the ground is disturbed by wind or digging. When humans or animals breathe in the spores, they travel through the airways and into the lungs where they reproduce
The infection has been dubbed Valley Fever because 97% of cases are in Arizona and California.
Although Valley Fever cannot turn the host into a zombie, it can cause severe harm to some people and kill 1 in 100 people who contract the infection.
Coccidioidomycosis or cocci comes from a fungus that grows in soil in parts of California and the southwestern United States.
The fungus spore is whipped into the air when the ground is disturbed by wind or digging.
When humans or animals breathe in the spores, they travel through the airways and into the lungs, where they reproduce, causing other illnesses.
Most infections are mild and go away on their own within days or weeks, and the infection cannot be transmitted between people or animals.
Most people with the mild form of the infection won’t notice it because its symptoms – fatigue, cough, fever, muscle aches and shortness of breath – mimic those of a respiratory virus infection.
Other symptoms include night sweats, joint pain, and a red rash, usually on the legs, but sometimes on the chest, arms, and back.
But up to ten percent of cases become severe and take months to recover.
In these cases, known as disseminated coccidioidomycosis, the disease can spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the brain, skin, and liver. If it infects the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain, it can cause meningitis.
‘The Last of Us’ follows smuggler Joel (right) as he escorts teenage Ellie (left) through Boston, Massachusetts, as a fungus spreads across the world
‘The Last of Us’ is set in a world where a fungus spreads that turns victims into zombies called ‘Clickers’ (pictured)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20,000 cases of Valley fever were reported in 2019.
He said that was probably an underestimate because Valley fever has often been misdiagnosed because doctors don’t know enough about it, so patients aren’t even not tested for this.
The fungus is endemic to desert regions of the Southwest, and 97% of all US cases are in Arizona and California.
But a study published in the journal GeoHealth predicted that due to climate change, the fungus’ endemic region will expand northward to include dry western states such as Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.
In a high warming scenario, this would mean that by 2100 the number of affected states could increase from 12 to 17, while the number of cases could increase by 50%.
In October last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the first-ever list of fungal pathogens that pose a risk to human health.
Dr Hanan Balkhy, Deputy Director General for Antimicrobial Resistance at WHO, said: “Emerging from the shadow of the bacterial antimicrobial resistance pandemic, fungal infections are on the rise and increasingly resistant to treatment. , becoming a public health concern worldwide.”
Valley fever is already difficult to treat and there is no vaccine for it. Patients may have to take antifungal medication for months and experience unpleasant side effects such as hair loss and scaly skin.
Scientists have been trying to formulate a vaccine for valley fever for decades, but a vaccine tested in humans in the 1980s did not work well.
Over the past few years, scientists at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson have created a vaccine that works in dogs, which are also at risk of infection.
The US Department of Agriculture could approve the vaccine for dogs by early 2024, which would be the first to protect against fungal infection in humans or animals in America.