Fellowship Story Showcase
Just One Breath: How Hope for a Valley Fever Vaccine Crashed into Reality
The quest for a valley fever vaccines is losing ground as its leading scientists near retirement and funding remains scarce.
When we first started reporting on the state of research for a vaccine to prevent valley fever, we had the word “hope” blinking inside our brains like a neon sign at a motel on a dark highway.
Most of what had been written about the vaccine effort was filled with hope, as is the case with most stories about vaccines. The stories focused on the near-term possibilities of stopping the cocci fungus from ever doing any more damage to the thousands of people who inhale its spores every year. Take this headline from People magazine in 1982: “A Vaccine May Have Been Found to Combat the Mysterious and Sometimes Deadly Valley Fever.”
Thirty years later, what ReportingonHealth Collaborative journalists Yesenia Amaro and Tracy Wood found was far from hope. They found that despite a lot of effort by scientists throughout the country and a lot of fundraising by small valley fever organizations, the quest for a vaccine was losing ground. They wrote:
In 2004, they announced they had selected a pathway to pursue a vaccine.
“A vaccine is at hand,” Dr. Richard Hector, the director of the umbrella organization, the Valley Fever Vaccine Project of the Americas, told an excited group of scientists at California State University, Bakersfield.
But today, early animal trials of experimental vaccines have ground to a halt. Research funds have dried up. And the once thriving academic effort has slowed dramatically.
The culprits? Lack of funding from the federal government. Lack of Investment from pharmaceutical companies. And, perhaps most interestingly, the lack of a patient lobby strong enough to make valley fever part of the health research agenda.
Amaro and Wood wrote:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 20,000 people officially came down with valley fever in 2011 nationwide, and multiple studies estimate that more than 150,000 people actually contract the disease every year, with most of them never being properly diagnosed. In those states where valley fever is prevalent, the rates of the disease are higher than those of many other common illnesses, including chickenpox and AIDS.
But, with the vast majority of cases concentrated in California and Arizona, most of the country doesn’t have to worry about the disease.
And the lack of a well-organized, disciplined patient lobby, such as the ones around HIV or breast cancer, doesn’t help the cause. Such patient groups always benefit from having a high-profile champion, and in this case, the most obvious candidates for celebrity spokespeople — baseball players who train in Arizona — aren’t speaking up, perhaps because speculation about their health could harm their baseball careers.
There’s one more factor. The scientists who have spent their careers studying valley fever are now nearing retirement. This summer, the undisputed pioneer of valley fever research, Dr. Hans Einstein, died in Bakersfield at the age of 89. The Bakersfield Californian’s Steven Mayer wrote in August:
Even as Einstein was gearing down for "retirement" in the mid- to late 1990s, he was gearing up to help organize a big push to develop a valley fever vaccine -- and to find the needed funding. It was a team effort involving numerous individuals that resulted in the formation of the Valley Fever Vaccine Project, a consortium of six academic institutions and four research laboratories, with oversight provided by a committee composed of Kern County-based physicians plus public health and civic leaders.
One of the five scientists leading that effort also has died. Another lost funding for vaccine research and stopped studying valley fever altogether. The three remaining scientists are 66, 71 and 84. They may very well have many more years of vaccine research in them, but they also acknowledge that the road ahead is very long and, if you’ll permit me the strained metaphor, full of very high tolls.
With this series, we are starting to see renewed interest in funding for a vaccine. Last week, California state Sen. Michael Rubio told a packed town hall meeting that he would raise awareness and funds "to find that vaccine so we can prevent it and hopefully eradicate it once and for all."
Here’s hoping all of the talk about valley fever starts turning into action.
Photo credit: Vaccine researcher Dr. Demosthenes Pappagianis in the University of California-Davis lab where he and members of his staff are developing a valley fever vaccine. By Brian Baer/Special To The Sacramento Bee