According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of cases of Valley Fever increased by 11 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.
Valley Fever (coccidioidomycosis) is caused by a fungus that lives in soil mostly found in Arizona and California, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.
People can get Valley Fever by breathing in microscopic spores found in the air in areas where the fungus is present, which also include parts of Mexico, Central America and South America.
While some people who are exposed to the fungus may never develop any symptoms, others may experience flu-like ailments such as fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, headache, night sweats, muscle aches and rashes. If the infection spreads to the brain, bones, skin or eyes, it can cause blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and, in some cases, death.
The majority of the cases in California last year were in Kern County, which experienced a 17 percent increase from 2017 to 2018. In 2017, nine people died from Valley Fever in Kern County, which is the highest number of reported deaths caused by the infection in more than a decade. The data for 2018 regarding the number of deaths has yet to be released.
Other California counties with high numbers of Valley Fever cases last year included Fresno, Tulare, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Contra Costa and Santa Clara.
"We've seen a lot more cases recently," Michelle Rivera, a health education specialist for Fresno County, recently told SFGate. "Not all providers are testing for it so there might be more cases out there."
The rise in the number of documented cases may be due to heavy rainfall or an increase in the number of vulnerable people in areas where the fungus exists, as well as increased testing by health care providers.
According to Corey Egel, assistant deputy director of public affairs for the California Department of Public Health, drivers along Interstate 5 (the main Interstate Highway on the West Coast of the US) and Highway 101 (a north-south highway that runs through through the states of California, Oregon and Washington) should be aware of gusty winds due to high rates of the infection along both highways.
"While driving through these areas, drivers could keep car windows shut and use 'recirculating' air conditioning to reduce the risk of Valley Fever," Egel said.
The California Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to Sputnik's request for comment.