Victor Gutierrez doesn’t know when he contracted valley fever, an illness caused by a soil-borne fungus, but he’s narrowed it down to a few possible jobs he worked during the summer of 2011.
In the nectarine orchards, Gutierrez recalls, “the wind was really strong, and we were almost falling off our ladders. The dust would rise up in the fields and we would get lost in in [it].” The grape harvest that year wasn’t much better. “We would walk out of the vineyard with our faces full of dirt. Only our eyes were visible,” he said. When he showered at night, he could see the layer of soil washing off his body.
Late that summer, Gutierrez started experiencing flu-like symptoms—a cough, night sweats, exhaustion, and a strange feeling that he was burning up on the inside. Gutierrez ignored it and kept working for fear of losing his job. But when he struggled to breathe, he went to see a doctor, who gave him a dose of antibiotics and told him to buy a humidifier.
The next day his lungs filled up with fluid and he felt so bad that he went to a local clinic. This time, they tested him for valley fever, and it came back positive.
“The nurse called me and told me to rush to the clinic because it was an emergency,” he said. Gutierrez, who was 33 at the time and a father of three, had never heard of valley fever. He was told he might only have six months to live.
While Gutierrez managed to beat those odds by taking the antifungal medication fluconazole for more than a year, he has seen valley fever kill many other people he’s known. Of the five people he recalls seeing diagnosed with the fungal infection on that day in 2011, he said he’s the only survivor.
Still, valley fever remains dormant in his body—and it could come back at any point. Gutierrez still struggles with regular pain in his lungs and when he gets a cold or flu, he’s in bed for weeks.
Coccidioidomycosis or cocci (pronounced “coxy”) thrives in dry, undisturbed soil; it becomes airborne when that soil is disturbed—whether it’s by dirt bikes, construction crews, or farmers putting in new fruit or nut orchards. It can travel on the wind as far as 75 miles away. Years of climate change-fueled drought and a 240 percent increase in dust storms appear have led to a swift rise in the number of people diagnosed with the illness across the Southwest.
Climate Change-Fueled Valley Fever is Hitting Farmworkers Hard, by Twilight Greenaway, Civil Eats, June 17, 2019.