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Oklahomans could be at risk for dangerous fungus

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OKLAHOMA - It only takes one breath.

Valley Fever is caused by a fungus that lives in dirt and thrives in states here in the southwest.

A gust of wind or digging in the dirt can send dangerous spores into the air.

If you happen to breathe in the spores, it can make you sick.

"A respiratory illness, a flu-like illness, fatigue, cough and those generally go away within a few weeks", said Dr. Tom Chiller, an expert in fungal infections and Chief of Mycotic Disease at the Centers for Disease Control.

For some, especially those with compromised immune systems, the fungus can take hold.

"In a small number of people, those symptoms can persist for weeks to months and, an even smaller number of people, the fungus can actually spread to other parts of the body besides the lung."

Andyou don't have to live in an area where Valley Fever is commonly found to become infected.

You are at risk if you travel to areas where Valley Fever is found.

We were living in the Northeast when our world was turned upside down.

We first noticed our son, Devin, was not feeling well around his first birthday.

He seemed tired all the time and was sick a lot.

"Our son was exhibiting signs of respiratory illness, possibly pneumonia. We kept going to the same pediatrician," said Ian Rafferty, my husband and Devin's dad.

My son's doctor sent us to different specialists who could not tell us what was wrong our son.

Devin's headaches became so severe, he would beat his head against his pillow at night crying out in agony, sometimes throwing up.

At 17-months-old, Devin stopped walking. He could not move without our help.

We rushed him to the emergency room, unprepared for what happened next.

Devin was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, also known as 'water on the brain.'

"When they first came to us and said our son had hydrocephalus, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I had no idea what hydrocephalus was," Ian said, thinking back to that first diagnosis.

Devin's first surgery was to place a shunt to allow his brain fluid to drain properly.

We were told we would probably never know what caused the hydrocephalus.

Devin healed and was doing well for over a year, until the shunt stopped working.

We raced to the hospital again only to find out, this time, a test of his brain fluid revealed he had Coccidioidomycosis, also known as Valley Fever.

We lived in New York at the time, no where near the southwest where Valley Fever is found, so our doctors were skeptical.

"There is generally a lack of awareness and thought about this disease and actually diagnosing it and thinking about it when your patient comes in with symptoms" said Chiller who heads up the department at the CDC that handles fungal diseases around the country.

Finally, after two and a half years, we had answers.

The Valley Fever caused meningitis which led to the hydrocephalus by attacking Devin's brain.

After several surgeries and intense treatment to kill the fungus inside our son's body, we walked out of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in 2014.

Unfortunately, Valley Fever never goes away.

It lays dormant in the body, and there is no cure.

"I feel robbed. I feel like we lost our son's childhood. He was healthy as a horse when he was born. He was a strapping young boy. He was our pride and joy" Ian said.

Still our pride and joy.

After Devin's diagnosis, he was prescribed a daily anti-fungal pill that he will likely have to take the rest of his life to keep the Valley Fever from coming back.

As a result of our two and a half year battle with Valley Fever, we also decided to leave the bright lights of New York City and move to Oklahoma.

A fresh start for our family.

There is a promising cure on the horizon, but it lacks the funding to go to clinical trials right now.

There is also promise in the field of testing for Valley Fever and speeding up the time it takes to diagnose the disease.

A company right here in Oklahoma is on the cutting edge.

Sean Bauman and his team of researchers at IMMY in Norman have developed a new quick test that can diagnose Valley Fever in minutes instead of hours or even weeks.

The faster test looks a lot like a pregnancy test, and Bauman said you don't need a fancy lab to do it.

"My teenage kids could run these tests. In fact, I've tested out different designs on my kids. Can you really do this? It's that simple," Bauman said.

In fact, experts said this test will remove the guesswork for doctors.

"Right away, you would know if your pneumonia was due to this disease. You wouldn't have to be treated with an antibacterial. Other approaches much more appropriate to a fungal infection could be used," said Dr. John Galgiani, Director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Arizona.

Potentially sparing patients years of unnecessary treatment for a disease that's often misdiagnosed.

"The problem with Valley Fever is it mimics a lot of other very common respiratory illnesses like the flu", Chiller said.

Researchers here at IMMY hope by making the diagnosis clearer and faster, they can change the course of Valley Fever.

"We want to save patient's lives," Baumann said.

For more information about Valley Fever, visit The Valley Fever Center for Excellence or the Centers for Disease Control by clicking on the links below.