CDC: California Inmates Should Be Tested for Valley Fever Immunity

Aerial view of Avenal State Prison, near Coalinga in the Central Valley, where inmates have been hit hard by Valley Fever. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

Aerial view of Avenal State Prison near Coalinga, one of two Central Valley prisons where inmates are at high risk from Valley fever. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

By April Laissle

Federal health officials say the state must take steps to reduce the outbreaks of Valley fever at its prisons. Their recommendations come after 30 inmates in California died from the illness since 2008.

The fungal infection is caused by spores in the soil and can cause fever, chest pain and swelling. Two Central Valley prisons, Avenal and Pleasant Valley, have had especially high rates of the disease. Last year, California officials agreed to transfer high-risk inmates from the two prisons.

Now, experts from the Centers for Disease Control suggest new inmates should be tested for immunity. They say susceptible inmates should not sent to the two Central Valley prisons.

Prison officials are reviewing the report.

“Wherever there are ways to mitigate the risk to individuals, we want to take advantage of that,” said prison health spokeswoman Joyce Hayhoe.

The CDC recommends that prisons use skin tests to determine whether inmates have been exposed to Valley fever in the past. If they have been, they are considered at low risk for the infection. CDC researchers predicted that this kind of testing would show that 13 percent of the prison inmate population is immune to valley fever.

The San Joaquin Valley is a hotspot for Valley fever because the fungal spores that cause the illness are common in its soil. More than 80 percent of the valley’s cases originate in its prisons.

“These prisons are a toxic site for many, many people,” said prisoner rights advocate and director of the Prison Law Office Don Specter.

Several infected prisoners have filed lawsuits against the state, seeking compensation for their life-long medical care.

“The department, in my opinion, has been deliberately indifferent to the serious needs of the prisoners who have contracted these diseases,” said Specter.

Prison officials are expected to formally respond to the recommendations in the coming weeks.

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