Scientists working hard to save lives with Valley Fever research

PHOENIX (KSAZ) - It's lurking in those dust storms that blow in during the monsoon season. That's the time of year people are hyper-aware of symptoms caused by Valley Fever: coughing, sneezing, fever and weight loss.

However, the risk of catching the disease is just as high year round, and in Arizona, that is happening more and more frequently. A couple of doctors, however, are working on a study that one day could save lives.

On any given day, one can find Dr. Lisa Shubitz at the Veternary Specialty Center in Tucson, treating dogs like Daisy.

"Daisy was very sick when she came in," said Dr. Shubitz. "She had lots of weight loss and had a lot of coughing. She wasn't eating anything. Those are typical signs of a lung form of Valley Fever."

"I thought she was going to die," said Daisy's owner, Jen Jewell. "She was that sick, and she would just curl up underneath the covers and not want to play. She wouldn't eat her food."

Jewell says her healthy Hungarian Vizsla, barely a year iold was on the brink of death. Dr. Shubitz put Daisy on a stronger medication, but her real hope is to one day treat Valley Fever with an antibody of sorts. That's why when she's not at the clinic, Dr. Shubitz is supervising lab work at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants before us, from a vaccine perspective, because doctors and other scientists have been working on a vaccine to prevent Valley Fever for more than 50 years," said Dr. Shubitz.

Dr. Shubitz and the group she is working with is in its second year of a four year grant to study Valley Fever, and most recently advanced a vaccine that was discovered about 14 years ago by one of their colleagues at U of A, a fungal geneticist who removed an entire gene from the Valley Fever fungus. Once the vaccine that is being developed at the U of A lab is approved by the USDA, safety studies could be conducted in community dogs. That could be just a few years away.

If it's successful it could also treat people.

"We might alter it, but the basic the basic quality of this vaccine, with this gene deletion, will probably be the core of whatever the formulation is," said Dr. John Galgiani, Dr. Shubitz's counterpart. His focus is on why people contract the virus, who is more prone, and how can people be diagnosed sooner, rather than later.

"Some people may never get diagnosed, even though they are sick for a long period of time," said Dr. Galgiani. "For others, there's a long period of time. A month or more."

When he's not on campus... Dr. Galgiani​​​​​​​ is in Phoenix, consulting with patients who are seeking treatment from specialists at the Banner University Medicine Valley Fever program.

"Valley Fever is a fungal infection

Dr. Galgiani​​​​​​​ says 2/3s of all Valley Fever infections in the U.S. happen in Arizona, and every year, roughly 100,000 people in the state are infected. Two our of three don't know it, and one out of three develop a severe illness.

The fungus that causes Valley Fever is found in spores, which anyone can breathe in any time dirt is kicked up, not just during a dust storm.

"The fungus is only in these certain areas which were pretty rural," said Dr. Galgiani​​​​​​​. "Up until recently, if you think in the 1950's, there were very few people living in Phoenix. Even less in Tucson. Fast forward three or four decades, you now have 4.5 million people in Metropolitan Phoenix, as opposed to 50,000, and 1 million people in Tucson."

As the Valley grows, so does our risk, and that's why people and dogs are being diagnosed at an alarming rate. Drs. Galgiani​​​​​​​ and Shubitz call it an epidemic.

As for Daisy, four weeks after her visit with Dr. Shubitz, she is stronger, and on her way to what could be a full recovery. With help from Dr. Shubitz, Daisy, along with other dogs, might never get Valley Fever again.

Dr. Shubitz says dog owners have been instrumental in making the grant possible, by donating thousands of dollars in the initial stages of research.