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Simi Man, 71, Dies of Valley Fever

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 71-year-old Simi Valley man has died of Valley fever, a respiratory illness that may have been caused by the Northridge earthquake, health officials said.

Eugene Walter Cole, a retired maintenance worker, was diagnosed in February with the disease, which is contracted by breathing airborne spores that grow in the soil. He died March 2 in a North Hollywood hospital.

Health officials have speculated that the Jan. 17 earthquake kicked up fungus-laden dust that has infected residents in the San Fernando Valley and eastern half of Ventura County.

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The Centers for Disease Control has reported 170 cases of Valley fever in Ventura County since the earthquake, more than half of them in Simi Valley, said Gary Feldman, director of the Ventura County Department of Health. Cole’s death is the only reported fatality, health officials said.

“There was a lot of dust all over Simi Valley, maybe this was why he was infected,” said Rana Hajjeh, an epidemiologist with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, who added that Cole had other health problems that might have put him at risk. “He was a diabetic, and diabetes sometimes can weaken your immune response.”

Cole’s wife, Hazel, said her husband had a high fever and flu-like symptoms when he went to the emergency room Feb. 10. He was sent home after being diagnosed with pneumonia. Two days later, he returned to the hospital with a 103.6-degree fever and was admitted.

“When he left, he just said, ‘See you tonight or in a couple of days.’ That’s how sure he was that it wasn’t serious,” Hazel Cole said.

He weakened quickly, however, in the hospital and died March 2.

“It just took over,” said Cole’s stepson, Raymond Dempsey. “The doctors tried everything they could to stop it. But it just spread so fast. Like wildfire. We knew it was just a matter of time.”

Dempsey, who also lives in Simi Valley, said family members immediately suspected the earthquake was to blame for Cole’s illness.

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“Every time the ground shook, you could see the dust rising from the hills,” he said. “The grayish, black clouds were everywhere.”

Feldman said the health department, which is investigating a possible link between the earthquake and the rise in Valley fever cases, plans to test 450 randomly selected Simi Valley residents to determine the magnitude of exposure in that area.

“One of the things we’re trying to find out is what the base infection rate is,” he said. “We’re trying to find out to what degree the earthquake has contributed to the outbreak of Valley fever. This is truly a new phenomenon, that is to say there’s never been an outbreak attributed to an earthquake.”

Feldman said those who test positive for Valley fever would be interviewed “to look at factors they were exposed to.”

Although the number of Valley fever cases for Ventura County is dramatically above normal--there were only 52 cases reported in 1993, according to the Centers for Disease Control--health officials stress that death is uncommon.

“Even (among) those people who were sick enough to come to medical attention, very severe illness or fatality is quite rare,” Feldman said. “To the ordinary person, the risk is really quite low, so much so that most people don’t realize they have it.”

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Patients with Valley fever report flu-like symptoms such as headaches, coughs, fatigue and muscle aches, said Susan Reef, a physician with the Centers for Disease Control.

“I think what is important to know is that 60% (of those infected) have no symptoms,” Reef said. “Only 0.5--that’s less than 1%--have the form that goes throughout the body.”

But health officials are taking note anyway. The Centers for Disease Control, which has set up a Valley fever hot line, released a report Thursday that addresses the outbreak of the disease. The hot line number is (404) 332-4554.

“The increase in cases follows the Jan. 17 earthquake centered in Northridge, which may have exposed Ventura County residents to increased levels of airborne dust,” the report states. “The California Department of Health Services, local public agencies and the CDC are conducting an investigation to determine the magnitude of the outbreak, risk factors for infection and its possible association with the Northridge earthquake.”

The Ventura County Health Department’s Simi Valley study could begin as early as Monday, Feldman said.

“We’ll do a skin test first (that) shows whether a person has ever had experience with Valley fever,” he said. Those who test positive will be asked to take a blood test that would indicate the time of exposure.

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Feldman said it will take the department about a week to conduct interviews and tests. County health officials don’t expect to have any conclusions for at least two months, he said.

Times staff writers Tina Daunt and Sara Catania contributed to this story.

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