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Fungal fever infects archeological dig site workers

FRIDAY, Nov. 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A team of archeologists and student workers digging in Utah last summer unearthed more than they bargained for when their expedition led to an unusual outbreak of valley fever.

Ten members of the group, who were renovating a trail at Dinosaur National Monument in the northern part of Utah and Colorado, fell sick with the fungal disease after intense exposure to dust contaminated with the organisms, health officials say. None of the crew was seriously ill, though they did suffer coughs, fevers and other symptoms of pneumonia.

While valley fever crops up sporadically in southern Utah, the new cases are the first reported so far north in the state, raising the prospect that the disease is a risk in areas well beyond where it is known to be endemic, health officials say.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is an uncommon ailment caused by Coccidioides immitis, a soil-dwelling fungus that can become airborne and enter the lungs when wind, construction or other forces disturb its dirt covering. The condition occurs most often in the U.S. Southwest, especially Arizona.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California sparked an outbreak in that state, thanks to swirling dust clouds. And until the one in Utah, the most recent outbreak involved a group of Pennsylvania students who contracted the disease last year on a trip to Mexico, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reported the latest cases.

Maryam Haddad, a CDC epidemiologist in Salt Lake City and lead author of a study of the new outbreak, says the valley fever at Dinosaur National Monument isn't a threat to tourists. "In terms of a public health risk, this is a very small blip on the horizon compared with things like influenza, which kills 20,000 people a year," Haddad says.

But the cases should alert doctors in the area that the disease is afoot, and that people who present with atypical pneumonia -- a dry cough, low fever and poor initial response to antibiotics -- may have the fungal illness.

Although valley fever is generally mild, and 60 percent of infections cause no symptoms, one case in every 200 to 1,000 can produce serious complications, including meningitis that can be deadly if not treated, Haddad says.

Dinosaur National Monument, created in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson, earned its name for the rich lode of fossilized creatures that once roamed the area. Since then, archaeologists have been drawn to the rugged region for its wealth of Native American relics, including an impressive collection of rock art depicting animals, musical instruments, stick figures and scenes of daily life etched into the landscape 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.

Dave Panebaker, the park's chief ranger, says the patients, including two archaeologists, six student volunteers and two group leaders, were refurbishing a 40-foot stretch of path to an auto tour exhibit called Swelter Shelter. The effort involved disturbing some soil and rock, which is believed to have sent the buried fungi aloft.

That area of the 210,000-acre park was closed in the wake of the outbreak but was reopened at the end of September without any cases of valley fever in visitors.

Julie Hansen, chair of the archaeology department at Boston University, says microbes aren't a workplace hazard for the typical archaeologist. "These types of things are extremely rare" compared with other illnesses such as heat and sun-related symptoms, says Hansen, who suffered sun poisoning on a research trip to Egypt.

However, infections aren't unheard of. On an expedition she led to caves in Greece, for example, two members of the team contracted fungal infections beneath their fingernails that still flare up more than two decades later. And an excavation of the Roman ruins at Bath, England, was shut down temporarily after one of the party developed meningitis, most likely from contaminated water.

What To Do

To learn more about valley fever, try the University of Arizona or the CDC.

For more on Dinosaur Monument, try the National Park Service.

SOURCES: Interviews with Maryam Haddad, M.S.N., M.P.H., epidemic intelligence service officer, CDC, Salt Lake City; Dave Panebaker, chief ranger, Dinosaur National Monument, Dinosaur, Utah; Julie Hansen, Ph.D., chairman, department of archaeology, Boston University; Nov. 16, 2001, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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