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Valley Fever Death May Be Tied to Quake : Aftermath: Simi Valley man succumbs to respiratory ailment. Health officials report high number of cases and say shaking may have kicked up fungus-laden dust.

March 18, 1994|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 71-year-old Simi Valley man has died of so-called valley fever, a respiratory illness that may have been linked to the Northridge earthquake, health officials said Thursday.

Eugene Walter Cole, a retired maintenance worker, received a diagnosis in February that he had the disease, which is contracted by breathing airborne spores that grow in the soil. He died March 2 in a North Hollywood hospital.

Health officials have speculated that the Jan. 17 earthquake kicked up fungus-laden dust that has infected many residents in the San Fernando Valley and eastern half of Ventura County, particularly in Simi Valley.

The Centers for Disease Control has documented 170 cases of valley fever in Ventura County since the earthquake, more than half of them in Simi Valley, said Gary Feldman, director of the Ventura County Department of Health.

But Cole's death is the only reported fatality, health officials said.

"There was a lot of dust all over Simi Valley, maybe this was why he was infected," said Rana Hajjeh, an epidemiologist with the Atlanta-based center. Hajjeh added that Cole had other health problems that might have put him at risk. "He was a diabetic, and diabetes sometimes can weaken your immune response."

Cole's wife, Hazel, said her husband had a high fever and flu-like symptoms when he went to the emergency room Feb. 10. He was sent home after being diagnosed as having pneumonia. Two days later, he returned to the hospital with a 103.6-degree fever and was admitted.

"When he left, he just said, 'See you tonight or in a couple of days.' That's how sure he was that it wasn't serious," Hazel Cole said.

However, he weakened quickly in the hospital and died March 2.

Feldman said the Health Department is investigating a possible link between the earthquake and the rise in valley fever cases and plans to test 450 randomly selected Simi Valley residents to determine the magnitude of exposure in the area.

Feldman said those who test positive for valley fever would be interviewed "to look at factors they were exposed to."

Although the number of valley fever cases is above normal, health officials stress that death is uncommon.

"Even (among) those people who were sick enough to come to medical attention, very severe illness or fatality is quite rare," Feldman said. "To the ordinary person, the risk is really quite low, so much so that most people don't realize they have it."

Patients with valley fever report flu-like symptoms such as headaches, coughs, fatigue and muscle aches, said Dr. Susan Reef of the Centers for Disease Control.

"I think what is important to know is that 60% (of those infected) have no symptoms," Reef said. "Only .5%--that's less than 1%--have the form that goes throughout the body."

But health officials are taking note anyway. The Centers for Disease Control, which has set up a valley fever hot line, released a report Thursday that addresses the outbreak of the disease in Ventura County.

"The increase in cases follows the Jan. 17 earthquake centered in Northridge, which may have exposed Ventura County residents to increased levels of airborne dust," the report states. "The California Department of Health Services, local public agencies and the CDC are conducting an investigation to determine the magnitude of the outbreak, risk factors for infection and its possible association with the Northridge earthquake."

The Ventura County Health Department's Simi Valley study could begin as early as Monday, Feldman said.

Times staff writers Sara Catania and Tina Daunt contributed to this story.

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