Valley Fever

Arizona dust devil. Photo credit NASA/Tom Gill

Dust in the air in Arizona is not only irritating, it can severely damage your health. Valley Fever is caused by the the Coccidioides fungus which grows in dirt and fields and can cause fever, rash and coughing.

George Mason University’s Daniel Tong, one of the first scientists to discover the link between dust storms and Valley fever is leading a NASA-funded team to track the airborne spread of Valley fever across the United States for the first time.

There are about 15 thousand cases of Valley fever in the U.S. each year, and approximately 200 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

A cake pan filled with marbles is one of the sampling tools designed and built by Tong’s team. This is installed at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) facility. Credits: NASA/Daniel Tong

Tong and his team are combining NASA satellite data and high-end computer modeling with homemade dust catchers made of pans for baking cakes and marbles. As wind passes over the uneven surface of the marbles, the interrupted flow causes the air to release the dust and spores it’s carrying. As the sediment falls through the layers of marbles to the bottom of the pan, it’s protected from being picked up by wind again, stored safely until the scientists come to collect several weeks’ worth of samples at a time.

The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of thick plumes of dust stretching from northern Mexico into Texas and New Mexico on March 31, 2017. The Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System by the World Meteorological Organization now has a Pan-American node that is incorporating NASA Earth observations like these. Credits: NASA/NASA LANCE/Jeff Schmaltz

Tong says that with more dust storms there will be more instances of Valley fever. For reasons that are not well understood, some people are more susceptible to the effects of Valley fever than others. Only 40 percent of people infected have symptoms, and 8 percent of those go to the hospital. “There’s no vaccine – the fungus lives with you for the rest of your life,” said Tong. “Those infected are paying about US $50,000 per hospital visit, and a quarter of those people have to go ten times or more.”

The team is working with local agencies to place the sensors in areas with frequent dust storms to see where Valley fever might be affecting the most people. Local health agencies like the Pinal County Public Health Department in Arizona and community physicians are already incorporating these data to inform health and safety measures like increased testing and public education.

From NASA written by Lia Poteet/Edited for blog my Marty Coniglio

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