Daily Astorian

A particular fungus that causes the potentially fatal illness known as valley fever could be spreading into Eastern Oregon.

Public health officials are taking soil samples from Umatilla County to test for the fungus, or Coccidioides, which is normally found in the southwest United States and parts of Mexico, Central America and South America.

Three cases of valley fever were diagnosed in Washington state from 2010-11 in neighboring Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. Soil samples taken there recently tested positive for the fungus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While all three patients survived, it prompted Emilio DeBess, Oregon's state public health veterinarian, to collect 17 additional samples primarily south of the state line between Pendleton and Milton-Freewater. Those were also sent to the CDC for testing.

There are no confirmed cases of valley fever originating from Oregon, DeBess said, but the expectation is they will eventually find the Coccidioides fungus with a little more digging around the region.

"It's the same weather, the same farmland and pretty much the same area," DeBess said. "I think we'll get some leads as soon as we start getting a little more aggressive about requesting information."

CDC test results should come back within the next few months, DeBess said. From there, the county public health departments will meet with local veterinarians and physicians about identifying symptoms and possible testing for the illness.

Valley fever is contracted when humans and certain animals -- especially dogs -- inhale tiny invisible spores that are emitted by the fungus into the air. The fungus itself grows in semi-arid soil, and is most prevalent in parts of southwest Texas, Arizona and central California. It is not known to be contagious or transmitted person-to-person, DeBess said.

Changing weather patterns, population sprawl that disrupts the soil and a possible rodent host moving north could help explain how it first arrived in the Northwest, said Washington State University professor emeritus Jack D. Rogers in a university publication.

Of those exposed to valley fever, 60 percent do not get sick. People with weaker immune systems or existing respiratory problems can develop flu- and pneumonia-like symptoms, which if left untreated could become more serious.

In its most severe form, the disease spreads from the lungs to other parts of the body through the bloodstream, setting up infections that damage skin, bones and inflame the brain. The CDC estimates valley fever kills 160 people annually.

With the absence of any clinical cases in Oregon so far, DeBess said it does not appear to be much of a risk factor now. But the Oregon Health Authority looks forward to learning more about the fungus, and working with CDC to expand testing.

"We will try and look for it, and sample other places that have similar (environment) to determine how extensive this really is," DeBess said. "We know the temperatures are similar, but that's all we really know. It's just a matter of learning more about the organism."

Sharon Waldern, clinic nurse supervisor with the Umatilla County Public Health Department, said they are aware of the testing and are awaiting more information.

"So far, there's nothing confirmed in Oregon, but we're trying to be real proactive about this," Waldern said. "Once we get some more solid information, we will meet with some local veterinarians and primary care providers."

Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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