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No we’re not facing a zombie outbreak, but fungal threat is growing

Commonly known as Valley Fever, the fungus coccidioidomycosis is probably here in Texas, including Kerr County, and dry conditions could unleash it across west Texas.

We’re certain many of you are ready for a post-apocalyptic landscape of battle-scarred zombies — either from space microbe or terrestrial fungus. The television series “The Last of Us” is brilliant and seizes on an evolving fungal infection to turn humans into a hive-controlled horde. Sound fun? 

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The fiction, however, is aligned with a nugget of truth. The naughty fungi in the HBO series “The Last Of Us” is cordyceps — an actual fungus, but the series has it as a hopped-up fungal infection superpowered by climate change. 

While it sounds far-fetched, the science behind the story is fascinating because of a hopped-up fungal infection superpowered by climate change. Now, it’s still fiction, but a 2022 study suggested that a fungus known for its veracity is spreading across the drought-stricken west and southwest, including here in Texas, and beyond. 


The fungus is coccidioidomycosis and is the cause of Valley Fever, which is common in parts of Southern Arizona and Southern California but is found in northern Mexico and across the southwest. It’s also known to be in West Texas, but how far east it penetrates north and east is unclear. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s map of where the coccidioidomycosis fungi could rest includes Kerr County — almost all of the Hill Country. 

Researchers from St. Louis’ Washington University and the University of Minnesota found coccidioidomycosis in 35 states, and the problem with Valley Fever is it’s hard to detect and diagnose. For more than 50 years, coccidioidomycosis seemed limited to the hot and dusty regions of the southwest, where the spores can easily enter the body through the nose or mouth. And here’s where climate change comes in (some may want to avert their eyes), moisture suppresses the spores.

And the biggest challenge with Valley Fever is it’s often confused with other illnesses or viruses. The guidance from the Minnesota and Missouri researchers is physicians shouldn’t rule out fungal infections when they’re treating patients. 

An image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows where coccidioidomycosis is found.

The 2022 study comes on the heels of a 2019 study that suggested climate change would only worsen the exposure. Doctors report about 20,000 Valley Fever cases annually, but most experts say the number is low. 

“By 2100, our model predicts that the area affected by Valley fever will more than double and the number of people who become sick will increase by 50%,” wrote the authors of the 2019 study. “The area affected by Valley fever will expand north into drier states in the western US, including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Our estimate may help public health officials develop more effective plans so less people suffer from this disease.” 

So, what does Valley Fever look like? Here’s how the CDC describes it: “Usually, people who get sick with Valley fever will get better on their own within weeks to months, but some people will need antifungal medication. Certain groups of people are at higher risk for developing the severe forms of the infection, and these people typically need antifungal treatment. It’s difficult to prevent exposure to Coccidioides in areas where it’s common in the environment, but people who are at higher risk for severe Valley fever should try to avoid breathing in large amounts of dust if they’re in these areas.” 

And the CDC doesn’t rule out most of Texas as a place where spores can be disturbed. 

“The disease is likely also common in parts of West Texas and along the Rio Grande River,” the CDC wrote. “We do not know the exact distribution of Valley fever north of these areas.” 


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