Diseases are spreading with climate change. Panic doesn’t have to.

As illnesses like Valley fever emerge in new areas, health officials keep residents informed instead of in fear.

 

Patients at San Joaquin Valley Pulmonary in Bakersfield, California, undergo hours–long injections of intravenous antibiotics to treat Valley fever. As a warm climate and the disease spreads north, public health officials figure out how to mitigate the threat and public fears.
Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When the first locally acquired case of Valley fever was diagnosed in Washington in 2010, health officials were stunned. The disease had only appeared in the state in patients who had recently traveled to the warm and dry corners of the Southwest, said Heather Hill, a communicable disease expert for the Benton-Franklin Health District in south-central Washington. But since that time, the disease has been found east of the Cascade Mountains, where an active agricultural industry, and hot, dry summers provide conditions for the disease to thrive. “It’s probably salted all across eastern Washington,” Hill said.

Now, new research suggests that Valley fever will continue to spread as the climate changes. This growth is a reflection of a greater trend across the nation as mosquito-borne West Nile virus and tick-borne Lyme disease also expand their range.

As more Western communities come into contact with new diseases, public health officials are grappling with how to report risks without generating unnecessary fear. Recent history has shown that poor communication only aggravates the problem, leading to public panic and a loss of trust in the government’s ability to handle outbreaks. Today, people like Hill are striving to learn from past mistakes and develop better communication strategies as climate change fuels the spread of diseases.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by the soil-dwelling fungus Coccidioides. It’s most common in hot, dry places like California’s San Joaquin Valley and Arizona. When activities like construction or plowing disturb the soil, the fungus can become airborne, releasing invisible spores that can lodge inside the lungs of humans and other animals. Over half of those infected will catch a mild illness that mimics the flu. But in rare cases — less than 1% — the infection spreads from the lungs to the rest of the body, with consequences that can be deadly.

With climate change, more states are becoming hotter and more arid, creating the perfect environment for the fungus to grow, said Morgan Gorris, a former Ph.D. student in earth system science at the University of California Irvine. Gorris and her colleagues published a study this August predicting that by 2100, the fungus’ range could grow from 12 to 17 states, including Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The number of people who contract the disease may also increase from around 10,000 to 15,000 cases a year.


Given statistics like these, it’s imperative for state officials to understand what is causing infectious diseases to move from one region to another. One factor is climate change, which is creating more environments where such illnesses can thrive. Take Lyme disease: With higher annual temperatures, ticks are more abundant and have increased opportunities to infect their hosts, according to a 2018 study. In the coming decades, cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. could rise by over 20%. As the climate changes, the spread of diseases will likely become a more critical public health issue, said Gorris.

But sensationalizing outbreaks can cause unnecessary panic. In a study on media coverage of the Zika virus in 2016, researchers found that nearly half of the news stories focused on the dangers of the virus without ever mentioning how people could reduce their risks. “We can’t just throw a bunch of information at (the public),” said Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor in Johns Hopkins’ department of environmental health who was involved in the study. Instead, “they need information on the actions that they can take to protect themselves.”

Public health officials in Washington are trying to use more effective communication tools, focusing on clear, consistent messaging, when they talk about Valley fever. “We need to walk a fine line where we report on the data that we have (on the disease) without scaring people,” said Amy Salamone, a mycologist at the Washington State Department of Health. This means sticking to the facts, being transparent about any uncertainty, and teaching doctors and patients about how Valley fever spreads and what they can do to avoid catching it. New risk-communication trainings have also taught officials how to convey their findings on camera without causing unnecessary alarm.

There are still communication challenges, but in 37 years of working with infectious diseases, Hill has seen a positive shift. “I am seeing a more careful approach,” she said. “We know that fear-based communication doesn’t work.” Now, officials use highly targeted messaging in counties where Valley fever may be present. Their main goal is to tell people how to protect themselves; anyone exposed to dry dirt should be on their guard, for example, and patients who manifest flu-like symptoms need to tell the doctor about any recent exposure to dust.

Hill recognizes that diseases will continue to spread regardless, and time and resources will be needed to keep the public informed and prepared. “We know diseases are coming,” she said. “We know we need to be vigilant.”


Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...