Despite that, an estimated 150,000 valley fever infections go undiagnosed every year, the CDC says. That's because valley fever is difficult to detect and there's little awareness of the disease, experts say. The fever often causes mild to severe flu-like symptoms, and in about half the infections, the fungus — called Coccidioides — results in no symptoms.
But in a small percent of cases, the infection can spread from the lungs to the brain, bones, skin, even eyes, leading to blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure, even death.
"Valley fever is a very common problem here, and it devastates people's lives," said Dr. Royce Johnson, professor of medicine at UCLA and chief of infectious diseases at Kern Medical Center. "But many patients don't know about it, and some physicians are only vaguely aware of it because half of our physicians come from out of state."
Dale Pulde, a motorcycle mechanic in Los Angeles County, said he contracted the disease three years ago after traveling to Bakersfield in Kern County and was coughing so hard he was blacking out; he spit blood and couldn't catch his breath. For two months, doctors tested him for everything from tuberculosis to cancer until blood tests confirmed he had the fever.
After two lung operations, Pulde gave up his job and is on disability. He says he has to take anti-fungal medication that costs him more than $2,000 per month out of pocket. He had to sell his house in Sylmar, Calif., to raise money for his treatment.
"When I found out that health officials knew about (this disease) and how common it is, I was beside myself," said Pulde, now 63. "Why don't they tell people?"
California public health officials say they are working to educate and train the public and doctors to recognize the illness.
The state has trained county health departments about the fungus, Chavez said. It has also included information on valley fever in a newsletter the California Medical Board sends to the state's licensed physicians. The CDPH website and social media feature information and data about the disease, including advice to limit outdoor activities on dry, windy days.
As prison officials gear up to move inmates from the endemic areas, doctors and patients say more needs to be done, including funding research to work on a cure.
"If the state is so concerned about prisoners, they should be worrying about all of us who live and work in the valley," said Kathy Uhley, a former realtor from Los Banos who contracted the fever last year.
-----Contact Gosia Wozniacka via Twitter at (at)GosiaWozniacka