The disease is so bizarre that some have termed it occult. It made a dramatic appearance in 1968 when students from the University of California at Davis dug into an ancient Indian burial site not far from the campus. Within weeks 11 of the 23 students were racked with chest pain, dry cough and high fever, and in some cases with pneumonia. Two years later 103 students from Queens College in New York traveled to Chico, Calif. to excavate another Indian site. Sixty-one of them came down with the same symptoms.
The likely cause of both outbreaks: a commonplace but sometimes lethal ailment known locally as valley fever. The result of inhaling a rare fungus found primarily in the dry topsoil of the Southwest, the disease is technically known as coccidioidomycosis. To some lurid imaginations, it is a curse that strikes those who tamper with sacred burial sites. “In fact, there is probably a very good reason the fungus is found around those places,” says Dr. Demosthenes Pappagianis of the University of California at Davis. “It may have resided in decayed bodies. Perhaps their remains reinoculated the soil with it.”
Pappagianis himself inadvertently fueled the myth about valley fever last year, when he gave an interview recounting the prevalence of the disease among archaeologists. He sardonically compared it to the curse of King Tut’s tomb. Since that story, the doctor has pointed out that the malady has also taken a heavy toll among tourists digging for prehistoric marine fossils at Shark’s Tooth Mountain, near Bakersfield. Indeed, all of Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County is regarded as a valley fever hotspot, as is Florence, Ariz. Berkeley microbiologist Hillel Levine, who, with Pappagianis, has spent years investigating valley fever, says it is most virulent when it attacks minority groups and pregnant women. “Please don’t call it ‘Indian revenge,’ ” Levine asks. “The sad part is that native Americans in Arizona are very susceptible to the disease.”
Almost anybody exposed to the dry, dusty soil of the San Joaquin Valley in central California is a candidate for valley fever—and an estimated 85,000 people contract the disease every year. Eight years ago Pam Epps, 33, went dirt-biking with her family near a Bakersfield city park. Within days, she recalls, she began “losing weight and feeling run-down. One doctor diagnosed it as ‘nerves.’ ” Valley fever was not discovered until a year later, when Epps was hospitalized after her lungs filled with fluid. Since there is no cure for the disease, Epps was sent to bed for two weeks to relieve her symptoms. “I thought I was well until March of 1981,” she remembers. “Then I couldn’t catch my breath.” Doctors removed part of her left lung because it was abscessed, and Epps is now taking an antifungal drug and sees her doctor regularly. “I still have valley fever,” she says.
Most victims of the fever eventually recover and remain immune to the fungus for the rest of their lives. Kern County doctors estimate that more than 50 percent of the population of the San Joaquin Valley has had the disease. Though most victims experience symptoms no more severe than those of the common cold, the ailment can linger. Some victims suffer severe skin lesions, meningitis and even dementia—and some 50 to 70 die each year. State Assemblyman Don Rogers lost a friend to valley fever in 1966. “He was a fine, healthy man,” Rogers recalls. “In a period of six months he went down, down, down. I watched the guy literally die before my eyes.”
Determined to help stamp out the disease, Rogers sponsored a $300,000 appropriation in 1980 that has allowed Pappagianis and Levine to test a valley fever vaccine on a large scale for the first time. Although some residents of the affected areas are unwilling to take the required three injections, the researchers hope their vaccine will prove effective—and that the Food and Drug Administration will quickly approve it. The FDA’s imprimatur will come none too soon. Says Kathy Thiroux, head nurse in the Kern County vaccine study: “I remember one bright, articulate man who lost control over his emotions and every part of his body. It took him a couple of years to die. This vaccine could prevent a lot of suffering.”