California Prison Is A Breeding Ground For A Deadly Fungal Disease

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"California Prison Is A Breeding Ground For A Deadly Fungal Disease"

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Prisoners in California are being moved into two prisons where they will be at higher risk of developing valley fever, a serious and potentially fatal lung disease.

Rates of valley fever at Pleasant Valley and Avenal State Prison have been much higher than in other parts of California–as much as 1,000 times higher at Pleasant Valley.

A federal court order mandated that the state move prisoners considered at higher risk of developing the disease—blacks, Filipinos, and prisoners with diabetes or HIV—but to replace them, the state is moving in inmates from other prisons, some of whom could also be at high risk.

One of them is Louis Baca, who has asthma.

“I just feel like my life’s on the line here and I don’t know what’s going to happen after this,” Baca told The Bakersfield Californian shortly before he was transferred to Pleasant Valley. “I’m stressed out, I’m actually sick [with a nasal and throat problem] right now.”

Valley fever is caused by inhaling a type of fungi. Since 2006, 29 California inmates have died after contracting valley fever. Moreover, prison authorities traced the disease as a secondary factor in 11 deaths and a tertiary factor in five deaths. The CDC calls valley fever the “silent epidemic.”

It has been a perpetual problem plaguing the California prison system, costing it $23 million in health care costs as well as millions in lawsuits brought upon by former prisoners who believe they developed the disease while imprisoned.

Unfortunately, the details of the disease remain a mystery to doctors.

Dr. Royce Johnson, professor of medicine at UCLA and Kern Medical Center’s chief of infectious disease, said that it is difficult to tell exactly who is most at risk because not enough is known about the disease. Therefore, more prisoners could be vulnerable to contracting valley fever beyond those that the federal court order deemed at high risk.

“You can’t really tell by sitting in front of someone and looking at their age and race and sex and know exactly what their risk is…There’s nothing black and white about this disease. Everything is complicated, actually amazingly complicated,” he told The Bakersfield Californian.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the state has moved about 815 inmates out of Avenal and Pleasant Valley and replaced them with about 300 prisoners, as of mid-August. In 2011, the two prisons were responsible for 535 of the 640 reported cases of valley fever in all California prisons.

The relocating of prisoners to these valley fever-infested prisons only complicates California’s notorious reputation of prison overcrowding. The Supreme Court ruled that the state’s high prison population amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and mandated that the state must release 10,000 inmates. However, earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown claimed that “the prison emergency is over,” refusing to heed the Court’s demands.

Update

This post previously stated that quotes from Baca were reported by the Voice of OC. The reporting was done by The Bakersfield Californian, but was printed in the Voice of OC as part of their Reporting on Health Collaborative project.

Marina Fang is an intern for ThinkProgress.

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