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Q fever

q fever sheep and shearing

Q fever is an infection that produces flu-like symptoms in humans but shows little or no symptoms in animals. It is most commonly transmitted by inhaling infected dusts and contaminated droplets containing the bacterium – Coxiella burnetii. The bacterium is highly contagious within herds of domestic cattle, sheep, goats and wild pigs.

The bacterium is found in infected animals urine, faeces, birth fluids, placenta of a foetus or newly born as well in uterine discharges following birth. These materials will contain high concentrations of the bacterium.

The organism is highly contagious within domestic herds and will spread quickly through stock. Once a herd is infected it will almost invariably spreads to neighbouring stock, native and feral animals and sometimes domestic cats and dogs. Once a herd is infected, it normally remains infected.

Direct or indirect inhalation of the bacterium is the most common mechanism of human infection. However, human infection can also occur via skin abrasions and splashes of infected material into the eye.  The consumption of unpasteurised milk from infected cows and goats has accounted for small numbers of Q fever cases.

The Coxiella Bumetii bacterium is resistant to heat, drying and many common disinfectants, allowing it to survive for long periods in the environment. Infection can also be transmitted by direct contact with objects (boots, clothing) and ingestion (for example eating after you’ve handled animals and not washing your hands).

Usually, Q fever is an occupational disease of meat workers, farmers and veterinarians. People who hunt and slaughter wild goats and pigs are also at risk.

Signs and symptoms of the disease include,

  • fever, which may last for up to 4 weeks
  • severe headache
  • sweats and chills
  • fatigue – and a prolonged fatigue (post Q fever fatigue syndrome) may follow infection
  • muscle aches
  • confusion
  • sore throat
  • dry cough
  • chest pain on breathing
  • nausea, vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • abdominal pain

Diagnosis of Q fever is made via a series of blood tests. Effective treatment includes antibiotic therapy. With early diagnosis, treatment is simple and a good outcome can be expected.

The use of personal protective equipment (gloves, P2 dust mask and waterproof overall) will minimise your risk of exposure to infected body materials or inhalation of infected particles in the air. The most effective prevention strategy is immunisation against the disease. This is achieved through vaccination of the Q fever vaccine (Q –vax) and can be given to — at risk people aged 15 years and over.

The steps towards identifying, developing and registering Q fever immunity include:

  1. Initial – blood and a skin test. This is recommended to ascertain if the individual has previously been exposed to Q fever – either naturally or by previous vaccination. In many cases people have been unknowingly infected previously with a mild strain of the disease, which was not confirmed by a doctor as Q fever.
  2. Interpretations – blood test and skin test. If interpretation confirms as – previously being infected with the disease, vaccination is unnecessary.
  3. Implementation – Q –vax vaccination (if no immunity identified). Once vaccinated, an option to be placed on the Australian Q Fever Register is available. The register is a database storing information about the Q fever immune status of individuals and allows employers to quickly determine if employees are protected against the disease before commencing work.

Note: The Q Fever Register is an important place to first go – if trying to identify your Q fever status as it may save the cost and inconvenience of unnecessary testing and will eliminate the risk of revaccination which can cause harmful reactions.

To find out the location of the nearest Q fever testing and vaccination service.

Find out more about this topic on  Better Health Channel

References used for this topic page

More information:

Australian Q Fever Register
Centers for Disease Control (US)
Department of Fisheries and Agriculture (Qld)
Department of Health (Qld)

Clinical care:

NSW Health
Royal College of Pathologists of Australia Manual

Fast facts:

Q fever

  • Q fever is spread to humans from cattle, sheep, goats and wild pigs.
  • People can become infected when splashed with infected body fluids or by breathing infected dust.
  • Q fever causes flu like symptoms and can be dangerous for people with heart problems.
  • Wear protective clothing and consider vaccination if you are at risk of infection.

Last updated: 12th September, 2017