California Healthline Daily Edition

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California Inmates Sue State After Contracting Valley Fever

Last week, inmates and former inmates at two California prisons who contracted valley fever while incarcerated filed a lawsuit against the state, AP/U-T San Diego reports (Thompson, AP/U-T San Diego, 7/12).

About Valley Fever

Researchers estimate that each year more than 150,000 people nationwide contract an airborne fungus known as valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis.

The cocci fungus is commonly found in soil in much of the Southwestern U.S., and is especially common in California's Central Valley.

People can contract valley fever by breathing in cocci fungal spores (California Healthline, 7/3).

The fungus typically causes mild to severe influenza-like symptoms. However, the infection also can spread from the lungs to other parts of the body and cause symptoms such as skin abscesses, blindness and death (AP/U-T San Diego, 7/12).

Details of Current Outbreak

In early May, CDC began investigating the deaths of more than three dozen California inmates who had contracted the fungus at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons in San Joaquin Valley.

The investigation was launched after federal receiver J. Clark Kelso -- who is charged with monitoring the state's prison health care system -- ordered the relocation of about 3,200 high-risk inmates from the two prisons.

Late last month, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered California to move 2,600 inmates at risk of contracting valley fever out of the two prisons. The order gave the state seven days to begin the transfers and 90 days to complete the task. In addition, Henderson said no new inmates who are considered at risk of contracting the fungus should be sent to either prison (California Healthline, 7/3).

Jeffrey Callison -- a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said the state currently is working to comply with Henderson's order.

Details of the Lawsuit

The lawsuit is seeking payment for lifetime medical care -- including medications that can cost as much as $2,000 monthly -- for inmates and former inmates who contracted valley fever in California prisons since July 2009. The current state policy is to provide a 30-day supply of the drugs upon parole for severely affected inmates.

Individuals represented in the lawsuit include black, elderly and medically at-risk inmates and former inmates at the Avenal and Pleasant Valley prisons.

Ian Wallach -- an attorney representing the inmates -- said the prison system did not adequately protect them from the fungus, which he called "a life sentence that no judge had ordered."

Attorneys are seeking class-action status for the case. Wallach said his firm already has been contacted by more than 500 current and former prisoners regarding valley fever (AP/U-T San Diego, 7/12).

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