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Fallout From Storms : Health officials warn that last winter's heavy rains may have increased the risk of acquiring valley fever and Lyme disease.

June 11, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

Here's something new to worry about: Last winter's big rains may have increased the risk of ac quiring certain regional diseases.

While typically rare, coccidioidomycosis and Lyme disease are expected to occur more frequently this summer. Actually, L. A.'s valleys are not especially high-risk when it comes to the illnesses that communicable disease specialists label as "regional," which means that such diseases mainly occur in specific geographical areas.

But physicians say that just being aware of the tell-tale symptoms could make a difference in getting an early diagnosis.

Dr. Roshan Reporter, a medical epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said there will probably be an increased risk for coccidioidomycosis--also called valley fever--because the rains created a good breeding ground for the fungus.

Although the numbers are relatively small, the disease has been on the rise in recent years, with a 255% increase in Los Angeles County since 1987. There were 56 cases reported last year, contrasted with 22 in 1987. In the first quarter of 1993, six county residents died of the disease, according to Health Department statistics.

Dr. Lyssette Cardona, a North Hollywood-based infectious disease specialist, said coccidioidomycosis is fairly common in California's valleys, especially near Bakersfield and throughout the Central Valley, and in Arizona and New Mexico. The disease is caused by a soil fungus that gets in the air when the wind kicks up. Just breathing is all the exposure a person needs to contract the disease.

Symptoms can range from those of a cold, and sometimes a rash in children, to a full-scale disease that can be fatal, especially in people who are immune-suppressed.

Sixty percent of the people who get the disease have no symptoms, Reporter said, and 40% develop respiratory problems that get better in a few weeks without being diagnosed or treated. Some people--even those who had no symptoms--wind up with what physicians call disseminated disease, a whole-body problem that is treated with intravenous anti-fungal drugs.

People of any age, gender or race can get valley fever, but older children and adolescents typically have more mild cases than do adults. African-Americans, Latinos and Filipinos tend to have more severe cases of the disease, Reporter said.

Lyme disease is another regional infection that, while rare in the Los Angeles area, is increasingly common in Northern California and parts of Oregon and Washington. These are areas visited frequently by local residents, which increases their risk of contracting the disease, Cardona says.

Last year in Los Angeles, two cases of Lyme disease were reported, one involving a woman who had been hiking in the local mountains, Reporter said.

The bacterial disease, discovered in Old Lyme, Conn., is transmitted on the West Coast to humans and animals by the Western black-legged tick. While only about 1% to 2% of these ticks in California are infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, it is still important to prevent tick bites because the disease can be serious. And, as with valley fever, the heavy rainy season is expected to contribute to the proliferation of ticks of all types this summer.

The best protection involves wearing long pants and long-sleeved clothing and shoes that cover the toes when in bushy and grassy areas, Reporter said. Pants should be tucked into socks or boots, and insect repellents should be sprayed on shoes, socks, pants and shirts.

Symptoms of Lyme disease range from fever, aches, fatigue and a rash to joint and muscle pain, heart problems and arthritis, Reporter said. If it is diagnosed early, antibiotics are usually an effective treatment.

Valley fever and Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose, so Reporter advises people to immediately report symptoms to a physician.

A blood test for Lyme disease measures antibody levels in the blood, but the test cannot be done until the antibody levels are high enough to be detected, typically several weeks after the tick bite. Antibody levels can be affected by medications and other infections, so the test results are sometimes inaccurate, Reporter said.

"A travel history is helpful. Be sure to tell the physician if you have been driving through the Central Valley or hiking in the hills," Reporter said. "It could be a significant exposure."

WHERE TO GO

* What: Pamphlets on the regional diseases coccidioidomycosis and Lyme disease from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

* Price: Free.

* Call: (213) 240-7941.

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