'Valley Fever' plagues U.S. west

Dec. 30, 2007 at 7:24 PM
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COALINGA, Calif., Dec. 30 (UPI) -- A deadly fungal infection has killed 33 inmates and sickened 900 others in the past three years at a California state prison.

The infection, which has been dubbed valley fever after the Pleasant Valley State Prison, begins in the lungs and can lead to serious complications like meningitis and permanent disability, The New York Times reported Sunday.

About 80 corrections officers have also contracted the disease, the newspaper said.

The disease is becoming a growing threat across the western United States, the Times said. More than 5,000 cases were reported in Arizona in 2006.

The disease finds its home in the region because spores live in the soil there. When the soil is disturbed, it releases the spores, which then find their way into the lungs of unsuspecting passersby.

Some experts investigating the abnormally high rate of the illness at the Pleasant Valley prison think the fungus may be especially prevalent in the soil, while others think the cramped conditions hasten its spread.

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