A disease-causing fungus thought to be confined to the deserts of the U.S. Southwest has been discovered in soil samples from eastern Washington.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now trying to figure out if the fungus, called Coccidioides, may be living in other parts of the Northwest.
Airborne spores from the fungus can cause a lung infection commonly known as Valley Fever. It's thought this fungus survives in arid climates by lurking in rodent burrows.
“I have been interested in the fungus for years and years,” says Washington State University mycologist Jack Rogers. “But I only found out last week that we actually had the fungus in this state, apparently established here.”
The discovery stems from a series of soil samples collected in 2010 and 2011 after three separate people in the Tri-Cities area got Valley Fever. The samples sat in storage until the CDC developed a genetic test for the fungus.
Federal health officials now plan to work with doctors and veterinarians to try to identify cases of Valley Fever and see if Coccidioides is living in arid parts of Idaho and eastern Oregon as well.
Valley Fever often seems like the flu. In rare cases, it can infect the bones, joints and spine.
The discovery raises the question of whether Coccidioides is endemic to the Northwest, but just undetected until now.