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Researchers to Focus on Valley Fever

May 14, 2013

In an effort to combat a debilitating disease commonly found in the region, UC Merced researchers are collaborating with area medical leaders to better understand valley fever.

Through the campus's Health Sciences Research Institute, immunology Professor David Ojcius is working with Dr. James McCarty, who's with Children's Hospital Central California and UCSF-Fresno. The two are studying valley fever, a disease that begins when someone inhales the spores of the fungus Coccidioides immitis.

"By combining UC Merced's research strength with Children's Hospital's real-world experience treating patients," Ojcius said, "we hope to discover how valley fever spreads and someday be able to list it in the history books alongside diseases such as polio and measles."

The two are looking to better understand the immune system's response to the disease with a long-term goal of developing a vaccine. This project has initial funding from HSRI and Children's Hospital, though they hope to secure major research funding through public agencies or private donors.

The project is an example of how UC Merced's research can help address pressing health problems that afflict people in the San Joaquin Valley and across the world.

There are other valley fever research projects being considered, offering other options for preventing the disease. One idea is to understand where and when the spores are most prevalent and eventually be able to warn people when they might want to reduce their exposure. Another proposed project would compare the different valley fever strains and the severity of the disease that they cause.

Much remains unknown about valley fever including why some people contract the disease and other don’t; the effectiveness of early detection and treatment on disease progression; the impact of the illness on sufferers and their families; and better ways to treat the illness.

The UCSF Fresno Department of Medicine is focusing on improving the tests that are available to physicians in diagnosing valley fever, including the use of technologies such as polymerase chain reaction.

These combined efforts will help address the remaining questions about valley fever and potentially help San Joaquin Valley residents.

In 2011, more than 20,000 cases of valley fever were reported in the United States, but many more cases likely went undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, researchers estimate each year the fungus infects more than 150,000 people, many of whom are sick without knowing the cause or have cases so mild they aren’t detected.

McCarty said the hospital treats lots of children with valley fever and recorded a spike in the number of patients in March 2012. The hospital has spore samples from patients, which will help the UC Merced researchers study the disease.

"These are Central Valley problems," McCarty said. "We, as advocates for children and patients, have a duty to focus on these projects. This is a very real disease that is devastating for some people."