In the past three years, more than 900 inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Ca., have contracted valley fever, a fungal infection that has been widespread and lethal, reports the New York Times. The disease is on the rise in other Western states, including Arizona, where the health department declared an epidemic after more than 5,500 cases were reported in 2006, including 33 deaths. In most cases, the infection starts in the lungs and is handled by the body without permanent damage. Serious complications can arise, including meningitis; and, at Pleasant Valley, the outbreak has left some inmates permanently disabled, confined to wheelchairs, and interned in expensive long-term hospital stays.
About 80 prison employees have also contracted the fever, Pleasant Valley officials say, including a corrections officer who died of it in 2005. The spores that cause the infection reside in the region's soil. When that soil is disturbed, something that happens regularly where houses are being built, crops are being sown and a steady wind churns, those spores are inhaled. Officials at the prison blame the construction of a state hospital nearby for causing a spike in valley fever. The construction was under way from 2001 to 2005, and valley fever hit its peak here in 2006, when the disease was diagnosed in 514 inmates. Pleasant Valley, built in 1994 to house 2,000 inmates, now houses 5,300.