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Reuters World Service, Chicago office, reported on March 18, 1997 on the after effects of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake that stirred dust and unleashed a fungus into the air causing an outbreak of respiratory infections that killed three people.

In the seven weeks following the Jan. 24 quake, there were 203 cases of coccidioidomycosis in Ventura County downwind from the quake’s epicenter in Northridge. The cause of the outbreak, which peaked two weeks after the quake, was a fungus with spore-like cells that was dislodged from the topsoil and inhaled from dust clouds, researchers at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said.

Coccidioimycosis is commonly known as valley fever, or San Joaquin Valley fever, because the fungus, Coccidiodes immitus, is found mostly in the topsoil or semi-arid areas of the US Southwest, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Residents who reported being in a dust cloud after the Northridge quake and its aftershocks were three times more likely to be diagnosed with an acute form of the infection, and the risk increased with the time spent breathing the dust.

In the report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Eileen Schneider of the Centres for Disease Control urged that those caught in an earthquake try to avoid areas of heavy dust. She said clinicians should be made aware that early diagnosis and treatment of the infection can forestall dangerous complications.