Paleo dig

In this file photo, JoEllen Perkins sifts through soil for shark teeth and other fossilized bones near Shark Tooth Hill in Bakersfield, a notorious hotspot for valley fever in Kern County.

Many fundamental questions about valley fever remain a mystery, but if a new study by the Kern County Public Health Services Department is successful, one may soon have an answer.

Although most people are aware that valley fever is spread when spores in the dirt become airborne and inhaled, few studies have looked at what happens to those spores once they get in the air.

The health department, with a donation from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hopes it can be among the first groups to track the fungus once it leaves the ground.

The findings of the study could be used to determine how weather conditions impact the spread of the disease, possibly allowing the department to issue public health warnings under certain circumstances.

“The ultimate goal for us would be to find out if on particularly windy days there is a correlation to a heightened risk to acquiring valley fever,” said health department spokeswoman Michelle Corson. “We can say with confidence, ‘these days are going to present a higher risk to you,’ and really be able to better equip our community and try to prevent people from getting valley fever, if that’s what the data were to show.”

Valley fever, scientifically known as coccidioidomycosis, is an unpreventable and incurable infection prevalent in the southwestern United States as well as places in Mexico, Central America and South America.

About 60 percent of infected people develop symptoms, according to the health department.

Last year, the disease killed six people in Kern County and infected nearly 3,000, the highest number since 1992. While most cases involve fever, cough, rashes and aching, the health department said, severe cases can result in infections of the brain and other organs.

Due to the climate and location of the population, Kern County is considered “ground zero” for valley fever in California.

The CDC recently donated four air samplers to the county that will be placed in strategic locations.

For a year, the county will use the air samplers to look for valley fever DNA in the dirt that is collected in the filters.

If the results can be correlated to specific weather patterns, the health department would be in a position to release significant valley fever findings.

“We don’t know for sure that we’re going to find anything substantial,” said Kim Hernandez, the health department assistant division director who is managing the project. “We’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to pick up valley fever in the air, but hopefully we’ll be able to coordinate it with weather.”

A similar study was conducted in Arizona, Hernandez said, but the results have apparently not been published.

This would be the first study of its kind in California, and the results are far from certain.

“I think everybody is anxious or nervous,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want to have a big announcement and then have nothing to show for it at the end.”