SAN ANTONIO -- William Cunningham remembers being a high school freshman, about to attend Central Catholic High School when it hit.
“I passed out eating breakfast that morning and went into a coma for two weeks,” said Cunningham.
Now at age 56, that illness from decades ago has come back to haunt him. Cunningham is now on dialysis-- the medication he ended up taking to kill the toxic fungus inside him eventually killed his kidneys.
“I hope that soon a treatment can be found for this. It’s not pretty,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham had contracted coccidioidomycosis, better known as Valley Fever.
It’s an airborne fungal pathogen, where the spores travel in dust kicked up from construction, roadways, and dust storms from California to West Texas.
Flu-like symptoms accompany a mild case of Valley Fever. But Cunningham’s illness became the worst-case scenario.
“This fungus spread through my lungs, through my central nervous system up to the base of my brain.”
That led to meningitis and powerful treatments with a fungicide and spinal taps to keep him alive.
“So the climate is probably affecting the number of new cases that we’re seeing. We’ve had a ten-fold increase in the number of cases between 1998 and 2011,” said Dr. Garry Cole, a biologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Cole is part of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is looking for a possible vaccine for Valley Fever.
Research shows the disease is on the increase, and so is the disease’s resistance to drugs that treat it.
The good news: UTSA biologists report there are two vaccines that appear to work. The bad news: they only work in mice. Cole said human clinical trials could be 5-to-10 years away.
“It’s not a profitable vaccine, but if you live in the endemic areas, Tucson, Phoenix, Southern California, and West Texas, you’d be very keen in moving this vaccine forward,” said Cole.
Cunningham believes he contracted Valley Fever as a military brat, living in Arizona where his father was stationed. Dad had the fungus, too.
More than 400,000 service members train in the affected, arid areas. Often, they end up inhaling the fungus and don’t even know it until a skin test confirms it.
The Cunninghams moved to San Antonio, where it is estimated nearly 10 percent of the population may have the fungus in their bodies.
And with an ongoing drought and plenty of construction development across the southwest, that number could climb, just like the dust in the air.
“People have to breathe,” said Cunningham.
Non-human primates would be the next step in research work on vaccines, if UTSA can get the funding. Money is tight, and the National Institutes of Health just denied a grant request this year. Cole said his group is asking for private sector support, now.