Into the Valley Rode the Ten Billion

Valley Fever is a silent enemy and it’s potentially fatal.  Named for the San Jaoquin Valley in California, the number of cases has increased significantly over the recent years with the US’ Centers for Disease Control reporting 22,401 new infections across the USA in 2011, up tenfold since 1998.   The infection is caused by the breathing in of the tiny fungal spores. In the small town of Avenal in the San Joaquin Valley, the spores are carried in on the hot winds blowing in from the desert.  Not everyone breathing in the fungus falls ill.  About one-third of those breathing in the spores suffer consequences but only one in 20 of those will face complications if appropriate medical treatment is made available.

There’s a detailed story on the BBC’s website.

The state of California has even taken action to ensure that inmates in two prisons close to Valley Fever ‘hot spots’ do not belong to vulnerable groups (for example, those people whose immune systems are compromised).  Inmates in vulnerable groups are exchanged with inmates whose life history, including ethnicity, means they are likely to be resistant.  Even so, over 40 inmates have died following infection over the last seven years.

Although it is important not to overstate the issue, the fact that the state is moving inmates out of the area has given several inhabitants of Avenal pause for thought.  They ask themselves, “Should we be staying here?”

One could say the same thing living in the neighbourhood of a large chemical production plant or, say, an oïl refinery.  “Should we be staying here?”  How people answer this question for themselves provides an excellent example of how science and technology interact in society.  Despite the oversimplifications that are often present in the political and social debates on science and technology, people are complicated and more aware of the issues surrounding for example, chemical plants and, more controversially, nuclear power stations than they are often given credit for.  The decision-making process is complicated and it differs from person to person.  Chemical plants provide jobs and have a beneficial impact on local economies, so; “What’s not to like?”

What most people do not do well is estimate or, perhaps, even accept expert estimation of risk as the final word on a matter.  The reason is that risk to experts means statistical likelihood of a problem occuring; for the people affected it includes perception of risk as well as an undefined cost-benefit analysis leading to a gut-feeling that something is a good idea or not.

Many people are happy to be employed working in coal mines but would object if the mine was to be replaced by a nuclear plant.  Statistically, coal mines are far more dangerous in terms of deaths occuring than nuclear power station,s but coal and its dust and the risk of explosion or mine collapse are easy to understand; people feel happy that they know what the risks are and can appreciate the problems that attend being a miner.  Radiation from nuclear power stations is different – it is invisible and associated in the minds of most people with cancer and mushroom clouds.  On top of that they are likely to employ fewer people, except during the construction phase.

So what of the people in Avenal?  There’s clearly a statistical risk of Valley Fever infection but as a perceived risk it is subject to the invisible calculus that ordinary people apply to complex questions.  Perhaps for some it’s a simple as, “Home is where the heart is”, and, of course, the job.

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