SAN FRANCISCO – The state's efforts to stop the rapid spread of valley fever through two Central California prisons have been so ineffectual that it should stop placing prisoners there, a medical expert told a federal judge in San Francisco overseeing health care in the state's prisons.
In a sworn declaration, Dr. John Galgiani said the situation at the Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisons is a "public health emergency," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Monday.
"Prison officials should be, but apparently are not, acting in a manner consistent with a situation where the lives of individuals are at substantial risk," he said. Galgiani, a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona who founded a center where the disease is researched, said he recently reviewed records of four inmates at different prisons who died of valley fever, and found that medical staff had taken months to test for the disease.
Valley fever is a fungal infection that causes flu-like symptoms and can be lethal. It is caused by inhaling spores from infected soil, and is not contagious between humans.
The disease is found most often in the southwestern United States, with about a quarter of the cases in California and more than 70 percent in Arizona, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of cases has risen over the years and topped 20,000 in 2011, the CDC reported in December.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has formed a working group with state health officials on valley fever, corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said.
"The health and safety of our employees and our prison inmates is of the utmost importance to CDCR," Callison said. "We will continue to work to implement mitigation measures."
Sixty-two California prisoners died from 2006 through January 2013 after coming down with the disease, according to Galgiani.
His report did not specify how many of those deaths occurred at Pleasant Valley and Avenal. But he said those prisons had by far the highest rates of valley fever, with Pleasant Valley's infection rate 1,000 times higher than the statewide average and Avenal's 189 times higher.
The communities surrounding the prisons in the southern San Joaquin Valley have the highest incidents of valley fever in California, but Galgiani said the infection rates at both prisons are even higher than those.
Galgiani submitted his report as a consultant for inmates who sued the state over health care. A federal judge is expected to soon consider a recommendation to halt the placement of African Americans at the two prisons as well as inmates with weakened immune systems.
Galgiani said African Americans and Filipinos are particularly vulnerable to the disease, and 71 percent of the prisoners who died between 2006 and 2011 were African American.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it has stopped placing high-risk inmates at the prisons, but has not excluded prisoners by race.