A fungus found in the dirt and prominent throughout the southwest area can cause a severe rash and possibly pneumonia or meningitis if not properly diagnosed. The fungus, known as coccidioides, can cause an infection once it is inhaled.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, only half of the individuals who have contracted the disease ever show any symptoms.
There were six reported cases of Valley Fever in Doña Ana County in 2013 and five in El Paso. McAfee has no reported cases of Valley Fever on the installation.
The disease is primarily contracted through the lungs and creates flu-like symptoms, which include headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, for some individuals. Usually, the disease can be fought off by the body’s immune system. However, in rare cases, the disease can spread from the lungs to the rest of the body and can cause more serious illnesses like pneumonia and meningitis, sometimes leading to death.
Ray Gruben Industrial Hygiene supervisor at McAfee Health Clinic, said though the disease is prominent in our area, not enough data is available to be able to require respiratory devices for individuals who work outside. The difficulty in establishing a measurement for dirt, Gruben said, is that it’s hard to meet the standards of the necessary amount of dust for a study. However, he said that if there is great concern within an organization then a study can be conducted.
“It’s hard to find a standard for dust,” Gruben said. “We don’t normally have a number for just dirt.”
“We can’t qualify people to use (a respiratory device) unless we identify an exposure that’s above a normal level. We haven’t identified a level of dust that would mandate a requirement,” Gruben added.
Gruben said that dirt itself can carry several diseases. For example, the White Sands National Monument sand is high in calcium sulfate, which can also cause illness when inhaled on windy days. Valley fever is developed when individuals breathe in spores that are most commonly found in dog, cattle, sheep, or rodent feces. Gruben recommends wetting dry soil whenever possible and feasible.
“Dust is a primary problem,” Gruben said.
The disease is most commonly found across the southwest in states like California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Therefore residents and sometimes visitors that pass through the southwest area of the country are at higher risk of contracting the disease. In a 2014 Health Hazard Evaluation program study based on prison inmates, a population of about 3,600, only 2 percent of the inmates contracted the disease after working outside for long periods of time. Of the 2 percent 60 percent were asymptomatic, meaning they weren’t showing any symptoms.
Gruben said an individual can request to wear respiratory protective gear at no personal cost.
In order for supervisors to mandate their employees wear respiratory devices they must first request an exposure assessment be conducted by the industrial hygiene department. If an individual employee is concerned about his personal health, a series of steps need to be taken that require an evaluation by McAfee Clinic to determine the health of the individual.
Valley Fever may also affect pets, most commonly dogs. Tests are available to diagnose Valley Fever in pets and owners can inquire with their veterinarian.
For more information, please visit http://www.cdc.gov/features/valleyfever/.