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Dr. Hans Einstein Valley Fever Research Pioneer

Were’s the good news about Valley Fever: if you get it and you’re living in Bakersfield, you couldn’t be in a better place.

“The real gem of living here is that you’ve got the best physicians, the best experts at your fingertips—Kern County is known world-wide for its research on Valley Fever,” said Kirt Emery. An epidemiologist, or disease investigator, Emery tracks the statistics of the disease for the Kern County Department of Public Health.

And without a doubt, Dr. Hans Einstein holds the top spot in the field of experts. Einstein, a Bakersfield resident, is the recognized authority on coccidioidomycosis, the technical name for the influenza-like disease. Now 88, he has been involved in the treatment and study of cocci, as it is also known, for at least 60 years.

Incidentally, he first became aware of Valley Fever as a young man while living not here but on the East Coast.

“I did a little training in New York before coming here and I saw a lot of patients with Valley Fever, which was first thought to be tuberculosis,” Einstein said. Many were men who previously had served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and had done their training in California.

The doctor became active in the research and treatment of the disease after coming to Kern Medical Center, then known as Kern General Hospital. In the 1940s, prior to his arrival, Myrnie Gifford of the Health Department had done “very important work.

“She [Gifford] established the fact that it starts with a lung infection and people who get it usually get well,” he said, adding that little was known about treatment at the time.

“We’re doing pretty well with treatment now,” Einstein said, “but prevention is the number one goal and a vaccine is the only way of doing that. I am confident there will be [a vaccine] in the near future.”

Perfecting a vaccine, he said, can be accomplished only through increased public awareness of the disease which is not limited to the San Joaquin Valley. It also is prevalent in Arizona—its state university is also a major research site—parts of Texas and New Mexico, northern Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. One little-known fact is that dogs, cats, and even cows are also susceptible.

Kirt Emery

What you need to know about Valley Fever

Reliable knowledge about Valley Fever—what it is, how you can get it, how it is treated, and ways to prevent it—is available from a number of sources. To demystify some of the myths, we asked Dr. Einstein and Kirt Emery of the Health Department these questions and got these answers:

Q. Is Valley Fever almost always fatal?

A. No. Most people recover with treatment. About 60 percent of the people exposed do not get sick at all.

Q. How will I know I have it?

A. A simple blood test. Labs are now reqired to report any positive test results to the Health Department.

Q. On average, how many people in Kern County get Valley Fever?

A. In a “normal” or average year, about 300 individuals are diagnosed with the disease resulting in five deaths. In an epidemic year, such as we had in 1993, it peaked at 3,342 cases. In 2010, there were 2,051 cases reported so it may again be on the rise.

Q. Can I get Valley Fever from someone else?

A. No, it is not contagious.

Q. How do you get it?

A. Cocci is a fungus that lives in the soil and looks somewhat like yeast or bread mold. The spores become airborne when the uncultivated soil is disturbed and is inhaled into the lungs where the infection starts.

Q. Are the spores everywhere in the soil or does it exist in specific parts of Kern County?

A. The fungus is usually found in arid, sandy soil but it is spotty. In a 20-by-24-foot area it may be found in one spot but not in an area only a few feet away. Scientists have yet to come up with a specific model to predict where it is. Some work is being done with satellite imagery in conjunction with Cal State Bakersfield to determine and identify areas where it might be growing. However, this research is currently at the “baby-steps” stage.

Q. I’ve heard people usually get it in springtime. Is that correct?

A. Not necessarily; it does tend to be more prevalent as the weather gets warmer in summer and on into early fall.

Q. Can I get it again?

A. Under normal circumstances, if you get well, you stay well.

Q. Is there anything that can be done to prevent the disease?

A. A vaccine is the only way to prevent Valley Fever.

Attorney George Martin

What’s needed now is a movement such as the March of Dimes or Jerry Lewis’s MDA Telethon. In Dr. Einstein’s view, the most effective ways to create such a campaign would be to enlist the aid of a celebrity or some prominent individual like Bill Gates who carries a lot of clout.

“The Salk polio vaccine would never have been done without the March of Dimes and the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Einstein said. “And MDA [research] would not be what it is without Jerry Lewis—if it was Joe Blow, nobody would care.”

Thus far, no such champion has come forward for Valley Fever, although famed National League catcher Johnny Bench did participate in a Cocci Study Group conference held in April 2009 at Cal State Bakersfield. Bench’s personal interest stems from having contracting Valley Fever himself during a Buck Owens golf tournament here in the 1970s and his wife’s much more serious case of cocci, combined with meningitis, in 2005-06. Sadly, it also resulted in the loss of her unborn child.

Well-known attorney George Martin, founder of the Bakersfield Business Conference, is one high profile local citizen who is active in spreading the word about Valley Fever. He, too, has had the disease. At the time, he was managing partner of Borton, Petrini and Conron. Initially he had to stay four or five days in the hospital, followed by a fairly long recovery period.

“It’s the only time in my life I’ve been off work for five or six months,” he said. “I broke out in a rash all over—I looked like Howdy-Doody or some cartoon character. I spent my time watching NASCAR and Little League games on television.”

Now, of course, he’s back at work doing legal work five days a week although he no longer manages the firm.

Martin agreed with Einstein about the need for initiating a major campaign to create awareness of the need for a vaccine.

“We can’t raise money for meaningful research doing car washes and cake sales,” Martin said. “There’s not a big profit margin in it for drug manufacturers but we need to put pressure on pharmaceutical companies and legislative and congressional representatives in our area need to help us come up with grants. Eventually it’s going to happen.”

The California Assembly did pass a bill authored by former state Sen. Roy Ashburn calling for $1 million for Valley Fever research. Unfortunately, the money has not been appropriated, according to Einstein. The county has received some federal money by way of Bill Thomas when he was in Congress.

Getting back to the good news department, Martin’s son, Bryan Martin, turned his year-long bout with Valley Fever into a positive experience. Bryan had to stay out of school for an entire year due to the disease. He was in seventh grade at the time.

Several years later, to fulfill a requirement for college admission, Bryan wrote an essay about Valley Fever, complete with a slide showing a spore given to him by Dr. Einstein.

“It must have been pretty good,” said Martin. “It got him into Stanford!”

For more information, visit the website of the Valley Fever Foundation of the Americas at www.valleyfever.com

Article appeared in our 28-2 Issue - June 2011