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Thomas Fire Takes Heavy Toll, But Health Officials Say Don't Blame It For Spike In Valley Fever

Thomas Fire burning near Faria Beach in Ventura County December 5th

The Thomas Fire and flood are responsible for everything from dozens of deaths, to what are estimtaed to be billions in financial losses.

But, could the twin disasters have also fueled a spike in the number of cases of an unusual type of illness in the region?  Ventura and Santa Barbara County public health officials have been keeping a close eye on Valley Fever statistics, to see if the disasters were a factor in the hike.

Valley Fever is a respiratory illness.  Most people who get it have no symptoms.  But, for some, the reaction can be flu-like, and in rare cases, and can cause severe and even life threatening infections:

The number of cases statewide jumped from 1100 on 2017 to 2900 for the first four months of 2018.

The state statistics show that Ventura County went from 24 Valley Fever cases in 2017, to 107 so far this year.  The numbers show Santa Barbara County went from eight cases in 2017, to 47 so far in 2018.

The question is did the Thomas Fire, and the 1/9 debris flow disrupt the soil enough to contribute to the spike in Valley Fever cases in the region? 

Susan Klein-Rothschild, with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, says the numbers show the county’s big increase in the number of people with the illness occurred in the northern part of the county, and not the Thomas Fire and flood zones.

But, what about first responders?  Health officials say there was one diagnosed case of Valley Fever among first responders in reach of the two counties.

Ventura County Public Health officer Dr. Robert Levin says the statistics show that there wasn’t an issue with first responders as well, even though they were exposed to the fire, and dust from the blaze and later the flooding.

Levin says the potential for a correlation between the twin disasters, and the spike in Valley Fever was a reasonable theory to explain the increase.  But, he admits we really don’t have the answer as to what’s behind the spike in Valley Fever number on the Central and South Coasts, and statewide.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.