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Saturday, Mar 16 2013 03:00 PM

JUST ONE BREATH: Valley fever advocates see hope for new funding, new laws

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine, left, listens as state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, brings up a point during a town hall meeting on the subject of valley fever.

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    State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    In this file photo from last year, then-Assembly candidate Rudy Salas stands in front of his grandmother's house in south Bakersfield. At left is precinct supervisor Mayra Martinez. Salas won the seat.

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    By Courtesy Perea website

    Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, leads the state Assembly in adjourning in honor of Hmong leader General Vang Pao.

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    By Marty Bicek/ZUMAPRESS.com

    In this file photo, then-Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani shares her position on pertinent issues, including higher education, at a candidate forum for 5th Senate District candidates hosted by Cal State Stanislaus and the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County.

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BY REBECCA PLEVIN Reporting on Health Collaborative

FRESNO -- It seemed like the long-ignored disease that robbed San Luis Obispo County resident Todd Schaefer of his health was finally gaining attention.

Last fall, then-state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, held a town hall meeting on valley fever in Bakersfield. Following that meeting, Rubio drafted two pieces of valley fever-related legislation. He was also named chairman of the new Senate Select Committee on Valley Fever, which planned to hold hearings this summer to inform future legislation, and counted two other Central Valley legislators, Republicans and Democrats, as members.

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The number of valley fever cases has soared so high in recent years that health experts are calling it "The Second Epidemic."

In an occasional series that continues today, the Reporting on Health Collaborative is exploring the rise of cases, the tricky science of studying the disease, the high costs to patients and taxpayers, the lack of private interest in funding treatments and vaccines, and the long history of inaction by government agencies.

You can read the series so far at www.bakersfieldcalifornian.com/special-sections/just-one-breath.

Rubio's actions followed the publication this past fall of the Reporting on Health Collaborative's "Just One Breath" series on valley fever. The series highlighted the lack of awareness of valley fever and government agencies' history of inaction regarding the disease. The Californian was a partner in the collaborative.

Schaefer and his wife, Tammy, along with other valley fever patients, advocates and health experts, began to view Rubio as the champion that would finally shine a needed light on the disease. But when Rubio abruptly resigned his seat on Feb. 22 citing a need to spend more time with his family, those efforts were left in limbo.

One of Rubio's planned bills would have required mandatory valley fever training for physicians and the other would have allocated money toward valley fever research, according to an aide to Rubio. But neither was introduced before the legislature's Feb. 22 deadline.

"When I heard that (Rubio) had resigned, I was completely deflated and felt like everything we'd been working toward and fighting for was going to be completely lost," Tammy Schaefer said. She had already begun collecting stories of valley fever patients whose diseases went misdiagnosed to support Rubio's physician education bill.

But about three weeks after Rubio's resignation, the Schaefers and others are feeling hopeful again, buoyed by steps -- albeit small ones -- that indicate lawmakers' continued interest in the disease.

State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who held a seat on the valley fever committee, has requested to become its new chairperson, according to an aide. Galgiani declined to be interviewed for this story, but state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, another committee member, pledged to raise valley fever's profile among her peers.

"Senator Rubio was critical and was a great champion, but there will be others in the Senate, there always are, who will step forward and work with us," Fuller said.

And two Central Valley assemblymen say they are exploring ways to support valley fever-related research at the University of California, Merced.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, plans to meet soon with university researchers to determine what resources they need to move forward, he said. Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, said he would use the upcoming budgeting process to try to allocate money to UC Merced for valley fever-related research.

UC Merced and Children's Hospital Central California in Madera have received seed funding for one research project. The university is also exploring two other research projects.

But that effort would require strong community support, Perea said.

"It's one of those things where, unless there's a big constituency behind it, pushing it, it's going to be hard," he said. "You've got to raise the profile in order to get the attention."

Kings County health officer Dr. Michael MacLean is committed to backing valley fever-related legislation this year and next, if necessary. MacLean also supported Rubio's physician education bill, and had provided feedback on a draft.

"There is a continuing need for this and I will continue to try to work for it," MacLean said. "If we don't get it this session, we'll be back."

The Reporting on Health Collaborative involves The Californian, the Merced Sun-Star, Radio Bilingue in Fresno, The Record in Stockton, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana and ReportingonHealth.org. It's an initiative of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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