Federal officials are heating up awareness of valley fever for medical providers in areas where the illness is known to exist.

In 2010, the fungus was first reported in Washington state and in 2011 College Place resident Dorlin Haste was one of eight Washington residents at the time to have been diagnosed with the disease.

Beset with other, underlying health conditions, Haste died in 2012 after a 15-month battle.

For years, hot spots for the fungal infection were considered to be in the American southwest and parts of Mexico, Central and South America. The disease is caused by organisms living in soil. Illness ranging from mild to fatal occurs when human or natural activity like wind stirs up that soil and humans or animals inhale the organisms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now doctors and nurses are receiving new, federally-produced training for valley fever, an important step for local and state physicians and their staffs, said Harvey Crowder, director of Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.

While there’s not been a local human case of the disease in more than three years, climate change is very likely to increase instances of it in this region, he added. 

Although the site of Haste’s contact with the organism carrying valley fever was never definitively identified, Crowder said his money is on west Walla Walla County.

“Classically you see a lot of cases where there is a mild, wet spring and then a lot of wind,” he said.

Soil testing methods have improved greatly in the last two years. “They can now go out and easily look for it,” Crowder said.

Valley fever is most often mild and self-limiting. When it goes beyond that, care providers need to be aware of the possibility in a patient suffering chronic pneumonialike symptoms. That will take education, Crowder noted. 

“When you hear hoof beats you don’t think of zebras. And this is a zebra in Washington state,” he said. “We know it’s here, but physicians don’t think about it. When I talk to doctors at both St. Mary and General Hospital, they don’t realize that.” 

Now the CDC is raising more of that awareness of valley fever needed among health care providers to identify risk factors, recognize signs and symptoms, and identify strategies for diagnosis, management, and treatment.

The effort should help doctors avoid unnecessary antibiotics that won’t work against valley fever, start the correct treatment earlier and reduce patients’ worries about why they are ill, CDC officials said.

Mild valley fever looks like flu symptoms and can include fever, cough, chest pain, headache, fatigue, rash and head and joint aches.

The most severe form includes nodules, ulcers and skin lesions more serious than a rash; painful lesions in the skull, spine or other bones; painful, swollen joints, especially in the knees or ankles; and meningitis, an infection of membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

As of now there is no vaccine against the disease.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.