The 11th annual Valley Fever Awareness Week is set for Nov. 9-17. During this week, we bring much needed attention to an incurable illness with concentrated effects in Arizona. For some of our residents, this illness turns into a debilitating, life-long ordeal.
Valley Fever is caused by inhaling spores from a fungus found primarily in the southwestern United States. Today, there is no vaccine. Prevention options are limited to avoiding blowing dust and soil where the fungus lives. Treatment options are also limited — the fungus is treated with anti-fungal prescriptions that have limited success; treatment fails to help up to 60 percent of cases.
Unfortunately, our state is the hot spot for Valley Fever. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 70 percent of the reported cases every year occur in Arizona. Even more concerning, nearly 150,000 cases every year go unreported or misdiagnosed.
Reported cases of Valley Fever rose more than ten-fold between 1998 and 2011. The most severely affected are the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened or suppressed immune systems.
Because the symptoms are similar to a severe case of common respiratory infections such as a cold or the flu, the illness is often misdiagnosed by health care providers who might not think to test for Valley Fever.
It’s estimated that those infected by the illness will miss an average of two weeks of work or school with average costs of $50,000 if hospitalization is required.
Some sufferers develop severely debilitating infections of the brain, spinal column and lungs, leaving them unable to function in their everyday lives. Even people who suffer less dramatic effects may not be safe in the long term — once acquired, the fungus may “re-activate” causing repeat occurrences requiring life-long treatment.
Along with my colleague Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, I recently established a Congressional task force to raise awareness of Valley Fever with the goal of spurring government health agencies and researchers to focus more attention and funding on detection, prevention and cures for this disease. My fellow task-force members and I have heard heart-breaking stories of the devastating and long-term effects of this disease.
Earlier this summer, we petitioned the U.S Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) to include Valley Fever in the list of pathogens under the GAIN Act of 2011, which would waive some USFDA fees and expedite approval priority for new treatments. This small action could make a big impact, possibly creating enough red-tape-cutting incentives allowing companies to seriously begin researching and developing a cure.
Progress is being made in the medical community, but we still have far to go in conquering Valley Fever. The University of Arizona is leading the charge in finding a cure, with the world-renowned Center of Excellence for Valley Fever for research and expertise. Local hospitals are also developing centers of expertise to share and grow therapies and treatment programs with better odds of success.
Our efforts begin with awareness, but it will take a concentrated and joint focus of government, the medical community and private industry to develop reliable and effective vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tests so future Arizonans may be spared from this disease.
Congressman David Schweikert represents Arizona’s 6th District. He is co-chair of the Valley Fever Task Force, a House panel whose goal is to help educate the public and encourage research and development for a cure. For more information about Valley Fever, visit the Center for Disease Control at http://cdc.gov/fungal/.