An airborne fungal disease without a cure, coccidioidomycosis — also known as valley fever or cocci — is affecting more people than ever in the Southwest, where more than 20,000 cases have been reported this year.

The disease is contracted through microscopic spores in soil that lodge in the lungs and can spread to affect the bones, skin, eyes, or brain. Although valley fever doesn't impact everyone who is exposed to it, there is still no cure or vaccine, and about 160 people die from complications each year. Every patient experiences different symptoms, but those infected tend to lose weight and strength rapidly. Many patients lose the ability to live independently.

Doctors believe the uptick in cases is tied to climate changes, with cases increasing when dry weather follows rainfall. The majority of cases originate in California and Arizona, but the total number is unknown — some states, like Texas, do not have mandatory reporting. However, the increase in infections is serious enough that last week a federal judge ordered 2,600 inmates out of prisons in the San Joaquin Valley, where 535 of 640 inmate cocci cases were reported. According to the Times, yearly inmate costs for hospitalization for cocci amounts to more than $23 million.

Valley fever also appears to have a more adverse impact on African-Americans. According to an Arizona study, African-Americans have a 25 percent risk of developing complications, compared to only 6 percent of whites.

[NYT, image via Shutterstock]