When one of my nephews fell ill with a strange pneumonia-like illness as a boy in the 1980s, his mother was told he had something called “Valley Fever.” My sister and her family lived in Bakersfield, California, and it was something I had heard of – my parents had lived there for a couple of years when I was young – but had more or less forgotten. He got better, but I’m told still carries the fungus in his lungs.
Coccidioidomycosis used to be regarded as a rare disease, limited – I remember the maps from the 1970s and 80s – to the areas around Bakersfield, CA (the San Joaquin Valley) and a completely different location around Pima, AZ. That was it. The disease is caused by microscopic spores in the soil – dry and dusty soil in these locations – that, once disturbed, can float airborne and lodge in the moist environment of the lungs – or many other places in the body. My nephew probably picked up the disease playing the Bakersfield dirt at his house or at school. Doctors were able to treat his follow-on medical problems – in his case, pneumonia and lung conditions – but they had no treatment and no prevention for the spores themselves.
Later on, in the late 1990s, the head of a small but relatively cash-rich foundation in New York contacted me, wanting suggestions on a back channel for what kinds of new initiatives the foundation might undertake. He wanted to something exciting, exotic, and foreign. I told him he had a sizable amount of money, but probably not enough to make it worth initiating the infrastructure for a new development project abroad. As an alternative, I suggested that he do something closer to home – something that would have impact [...]