Valley Fever: The Fungal Spores that Plague Archaeologists

When you spend your time digging in dirt, you get exposed to all sorts of nasty spores

Coccidioides immitis spores
Coccidioides immitis spores CDC

For the people living in the southwest, the spores of the fungus Coccidioides pose a lingering threat. Buried in the soil, the spores wait for rain or a shovel, or even an earthquake to disturb the ground and let them loose. If you breath them in, they can give you coccidioidomycosisValley Fever. “In most people the infection will go away on its own,” says the CDC, but in bad cases, “the infection can cause chronic pneumonia, spread from the lungs to the rest of the body and cause meningitis (brain or spine infection), or even death.”

Cases of Valley Fever are on the rise, says the BBC, climbing from around 2,500 to shy of 25,000 in just over a decade. But where Valley Fever is a known threat to residents of the southwest U.S. and Mexico—or, hopefully is, given the recent awareness blitz—there’s one unexpected group of outsiders that Valley Fever can reach, even if they’re far from the desert.

For archaeologists, says Discover MagazineCoccidioides infections are waiting in their samples. This isn’t just a problem for archaeologists digging in the spored infested soil of the southwest:

Even for those archaeologists that decide to wear a dust mask as they work, while it may decrease the risk of infection, it does little to mitigate the inevitable fact that C. immitis is “an integral component of the natural microflora of endemic areas”. And even those working outside the field, within laboratories and museums, can be exposed when the need arises to clean or work with discovered artifacts or field equipment. Artifacts shipped to museums overseas, including London, Paris and Hong Kong, have been found with traveling cocci spores. (Perhaps yet another good reason for not mailing away an indigenous culture’s artifacts?)

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