updated 12/20/2006 12:17:52 PM ET 2006-12-20T17:17:52

Researchers are cautiously optimistic about receiving millions of dollars in government grants to test vaccines for valley fever, a sometimes fatal disease that affects tens of thousands of people in the Southwest each year.

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President Bush is expected Wednesday to sign a tax and health care package approved by Congress earlier this month that includes a measure authorizing a $40 million research program aimed at developing a vaccine for valley fever.

Assuming Congress actually appropriates the money, researchers say they are confident that both a preventative vaccine and a medicine that can cure those who have already contracted the disease will be developed within a decade.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is a relatively obscure disease caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus found in the U.S. Southwest, northwestern Mexico and California’s Central Valley. An estimated 130,000 people are exposed each year, but fewer than half develop symptoms that lead to diagnosis and only about 10 percent require treatment.

Those sickened by the disease can suffer debilitating lung, bone and neurological illnesses, and deaths are not uncommon. Arizona, with about two-thirds of all cases, reported 33 deaths in 2005.

The legislation has come at a critical time, said Richard Hector, a project leader at the Valley Fever Vaccine Project at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are very close to finishing the research component, but now we need to transition into actual pharmaceutical development, which can be expensive, but which is not the type of development that the National Institutes of Health will support,” he said.

For nearly 10 years, research has been funded principally through about $15 million provided by the state of California.

Researchers are looking at two different classes of vaccines to prevent infection and will soon choose one to move into full development.

Four drugs are now used to treat valley fever but none kills the fungus. Most people recover on their own but the fungus remains in the body and illness can recur.

If appropriated, the $40 million likely would be stretched out over a period of years, focusing on vaccine research.

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