Gruesome 'Valley Fever' Is Spreading in US West

Cases of flesh-eating fungus that grows in the dirt are rising amid warming temperatures
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 26, 2023 5:30 AM CST
Flesh-Eating Fungus in US West Is Spreading
In this file photo, a lab technician pulls samples being tested for Valley Fever from an analysis machine in the Community Medical Center lab in Fresno, Calif.   (AP Photo/Fresno Bee, Craig Kohlruss)

Extreme heat, flooding, and all manner of severe weather are strongly linked to climate change, but a new threat would like to enter the chat, and as a fair warning, it's pretty gruesome. Scientists warn that coccidioides, a fungus that causes an ailment known as Valley Fever, is spreading rapidly in the US West as temperatures increase. Per the Washington Post, cases involving this flesh-eating fungus, dubbed "cocci" in scientific circles, have quadrupled in the past 20 years, with California particularly hard hit. The CDC reports about 20,000 annual cases in the US, but the agency estimates the true number may be closer to 500,000 because initial symptoms are similar to those for more common diseases.

"I cannot think of any other infection that is so closely entwined with climate change," infectious-disease specialist Rasha Kuran tells the Post. While Valley Fever's link to climate change hasn't expressly been proven, cocci thrives in drought conditions followed by a rainy season, when it experiences a fungal superbloom. It's spread as drought-ridden dirt becomes airborne in dust storms or by human interactions, like construction or simply kicking up dirt. Per UCLA Health, the spores in the air germinate after people inhale them, and inside the human body, they become a pathogenic yeast. Symptoms often pass off as lung ailments like pneumonia, but for some, it can spread to other organs, causing paralysis, chronic, incurable illness, and even death.

A recent, skin-crawling discovery about cocci comes out of UC Berkley. The fungus has lost its genes used to eat plants, and developed new ones for consuming meat. "These fungi evolved to eat animals," says mycologist John Taylor. Dead rats are a favorite snack, and while researchers know the fungus grows in dirt and is spread through the air, they're also studying rat holes, where large concentrations of the fungus grow. This detective work helped prove that cocci spread up as far as Washington. "Maybe in a few decades, half of the United States will be endemic for cocci," clinical microbiologist Dr. Shaun Yang predicts. (More climate change stories).

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