Three years ago, Jeff Haberly was like Superman.
The young engineer and triathlete was juggling a demanding career, new fatherhood and marathon training when he came down with fever and fatigue that just wouldn’t go away.
“He’s a very active guy, and one to help a lot, but he started just coming home from work and...crashing all the time,” said wife Lisa Steele-Haberly. “So, we started thinking something was pretty wrong, but had trouble pinpointing what.”
Haberly was more tired than he’d ever been in his life, and struggled with getting out of bed or making it through the workday.
His doctor diagnosed him with the flu and sent him home to rest. When Haberly’s condition failed to improve, his physician tried a round of antibiotics. But time passed, and Haberly didn’t get better.
“We went through another two sets of antibiotics, and nothing was helping for about three weeks or so,” he recalled. “...then I did a little research myself and suggested that maybe I had valley fever. He had the valley fever test, and it came back a couple of days later positive..."
Valley fever is a lung disease that affects humans and some other animals, including dogs and cats. It’s caused by a fungus, called coccidioides, which lives in soil in the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.
If the soil is stirred up, inhaling a single spore can set the infection and illness in motion.
The fever is common enough in Arizona to keep physicians, such as Kenneth Knox, the pulmonary section chief of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, very, very busy.
“Arizona is by far the leading state in which valley fever occurs,” Knox said. “In Arizona we see about 15,000 cases of valley fever a year. In the endemic area, which also includes surrounding states, we see approximately 150,000 cases.”
Although valley fever is common in the Southwest, it’s routinely misdiagnosed, Knox explained.
“I think there’s a misconception that your doctor will test you for valley fever, simply because you live in Arizona, when you get sick,” Knox said. “It’s pretty clear that a lot of physicians do not test, at least not in the first go-around.”
Misdiagnoses often go unnoticed because, for most people, valley fever is mild and resolves on its own.
But for others, valley fever can be debilitating and even deadly.
“They may be immunosuppressed, meaning they have underlying medical conditions that suppress their immune system—diabetes would be one, being on prednisone or other immune-suppressing agents would be another,” Knox said. “Those people can get very sick, and the infection is not contained in the lung—it can get throughout the body, typically to the brain and bone, sometimes to the skin. And that can be life-threatening.”
Pregnant women in their third trimester are also at greater risk. So are certain ethnic and racial groups, including Filipinos and African-Americans.
No one knows why some people are more affected by valley fever than others. But researchers at the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence are working to solve this and many other still-unanswered questions.
The center’s director, Dr. John Galgiani, said he and his colleagues are trying to figure out how the fungus interacts with the body, where exactly it lives in the soil, and even how it’s affected by climate.
“There’s clearly effects of rainfall and increasing or decreasing the year-to-year variations, but what is in store over decades is not as well-answered,” Galgiani said. “Understanding that would allow us to plan for the future.”
The goal is to improve current treatments for valley fever, which can control the fungus but can’t kill it completely.
Galgiani said the center’s efforts may eventually lead to a cure: nikkomycin Z, a drug developed by the center and sponsored by the UA that has so far only been tested in animals.
“The UA is the sponsor because thus far we haven’t been able to attract a pharmaceutical company to partner with us,” Galgiani said. “The FDA has an active file on this drug. So, it’s in active study, but I think it will need more pharmaceutical support to get it commercialized.”
Because there’s currently no way to prevent valley fever, Galgiani said early diagnosis and treatment are vitally important—and they start with awareness of how common and serious the disease can be.
“Many people, if you ask them about valley fever, they say, ‘oh, it’s here, you get it and you get over it and that’s it,’” he said. “That’s not the case for most people who get sick enough to seek medical attention.”
Haberly eventually found the medical attention he needed. With Galgiani’s help, he slowly recovered the health and fitness he’d always taken for granted. But experiencing valley fever has forever changed his perspective, Haberly said.
“No matter how healthy you think you are, or how healthy you eat or exercise, it can really affect anyone,” he said. “So that was kind of a big wake-up call.”
Now Haberly is back to balancing work and family and training for triathlons. But these days he said he’s also taking time to slow down once in a while, and feeling a little more grateful for every moment of good health.