24 Apr 2010 21:13
Yesterday, I wrote about the emerging public alarm over the fungus Cryptococcus gattii. Alarm continues to emerge, though some welcome voices of moderation are also appearing. (Time magazine’s writer Alice Park, for example, insightfully explored both the fungus and the alarm in “The ‘Killer Fungus’: Should We Be Scared?”)
Today’s topic is another fungus, a fungus of my childhood.
Like every nerdy kid in the 1960s, I could say and spell the words “antidisestablishmentarianism” and “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” But unlike most nerdy kids outside the desert Southwest, I could also say and spell “coccidioidomycosis.” When I read about C. gattii yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about it — coccidioidomycosis, or Valley Fever. Like the killer disease du jour, Valley Fever infects humans and animals who inhale fungus spores. In the case of Valley Fever, the fungus is Coccidioides immitis, which resides in the local soil around Phoenix and other parts of the Southwest. After a dry spell, rain and wind dislodge the spores and carry them into the air, where they float, free for the breathing.
I breathed in my share. Whenever a dust storm rolled in, my brother and I would don our swim masks, run outside, and play in the carport until rain and lightning arrived, if it did. Driving through the desert on dirt roads or off-road probably kicks up spores, too, and Dad took us on more than a few dirt-road and off-road trips in the Wagoneer.
Like C. immitis, C. gattii, according to some sources, usually causes no symptoms or minor ones. Sciencemag.org’s Robert F. Service writes that “most of [Vancouver Island’s] 750,000 residents have been exposed to C. gattii multiple times with no symptoms.” That’s not to say these fungal infections are innocuous; serious infections have occurred particularly in the immunocompromised, such as transplant recipients or (especially before HAART) persons with AIDS.