Ventura County health officials confirmed Wednesday that 23 cases of valley fever have been reported this year, a sharp rise over the seven cases reported during all of 1991.
Two deaths in the county this year have been blamed on the flu-like disease transmitted by an airborne fungus often carried by dust particles in strong winds. Health officials said they are not surprised by the dramatic increase this year.
"The state's infectious disease (authorities) predicted we would have an increase," said Lawrence E. Dodds, the county's health officer. The dust storms that plagued motorists in the San Joaquin Valley during the Thanksgiving holiday were expected to spread the fungus, he said.
"Sure enough, a couple of weeks after that, cases started to be reported to us," he said.
In 1990 there were seven cases in Ventura County, two in 1989, two in 1988 and nine in 1987.
Other counties have also reported sharp increases in valley fever. Kern County, where the disease has been the most widespread, reported 477 cases in the first four months of this year.
In a typical year, Kern County averages 230 to 300 cases. Last year, 1,181 were reported, the bulk of them during windy conditions at the end of the year.
In Los Angeles County, 25 cases have been reported this year; last year's count was 41.
The fungus takes four to eight weeks to produce symptoms that make a person feel ill, Dodds said. Some people exhibit no symptoms and the disease can be detected only through a blood test for the fungus. Others may have mild flu-like symptoms, a persistent cough or painful red bumps on the shins.
For a small number, the disease spreads to the lungs and the rest of the body, often requiring hospitalization and lengthy drug treatment.
Dodds said the 23 reported victims in Ventura County were patients so severely ill that they had to be hospitalized. Although doctors are required to report a diagnosed case of valley fever to the county, some cases are so mild that they do not or are not aware of the requirement.
"Very few doctors report it," said Dr. Hans Einstein, medical director of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and an authority on the disease.
The disease is named for the San Joaquin Valley where it is most commonly found, along with other arid sections of the Southwest. Health experts believe soil conditions are related to the location of the fungus. Strong winds and dust storms spread the spores, which are inhaled.