Aussies warned over spike in potentially deadly 'Q fever' illness

·4-min read

A community in southern Queensland has been urged to get vaccinated against a bacterial disease after reported cases jumped to alarming levels this year.

Queensland Health has put Wide Bay residents on alert and urged them to get vaccinated against Q fever, a bacterial disease that has been identified in the region.

There have been 11 people in the Wide Bay area found to have the disease in 2022. In the past five years there have been between three and seven cases identified by this time of year.

Cattle, sheep, goats and kangaroos can all carry the bacteria that causes Q fever. Source: AAP Image
Cattle, sheep, goats and kangaroos can all carry the bacteria that causes Q fever. Source: AAP Image

The bacteria Coxiella burnetii causes Q fever and animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and kangaroos carry the bacteria.

Humans can become infected by breathing in droplets of the bacteria or dust contaminated by birth fluids, faeces or urine from infected animals, Queensland Health said.

Person-to-person transmission of Q fever is rare.

Westmead Hospital paediatrician and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Nicholas Wood, told Yahoo News Australia that generally, there are about 500 cases of Q fever identified nationally every year.

He said cases are usually identified along the east coast of Australia.

However, given the symptoms of the disease are flu-like, Q fever is "definitely underreported", he said.

Why are there more Q fever cases this year?

The increase of cases this year could be due to the greater numbers of wildlife living closer to residential areas, Wide Bay Public Health Unit Public Health Physician Dr Josette Chor said.

Dry and windy conditions can also increase the risk of transmission in humans.

People who are exposed to animals through their work, such as livestock and abattoir workers, are more at risk of getting Q fever. Anyone who is working in a high-risk workplace is urged to get vaccinated.

Dr Chor said there is a "highly effective" vaccine for Q fever.

“If there are obvious animal droppings, please use a P2 mask — available from hardware stores — to undertake outdoor jobs such as mowing the lawn," she said.

“It’s also important to always wash your hands after coming into contact with all animals or their faeces, especially before eating and drinking.”

Prof Wood recommends anyone who is involved with livestock, including children should get vaccinated. He said the vaccine is licensed in Australia for anyone aged 15 years old and above.

What are the symptoms for Q fever?

About half of the people who become exposed to Q fever will experience flu-like symptoms and around 40 per cent will need to be cared for at a hospital.

The University of Sydney said in a recent release that it can also lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic heart conditions and chronic hepatitis.

In children, it can cause bone marrow necrosis, which is a disease that affects the growth of the bone. People have died from Q fever.

A photo of one kangaroo sitting on grass looking at the camera
Experts believe the increase in Q fever cases could be due to closer proximity to animals. Source: Getty Images, file

If infected people are diagnosed early Q fever can be treated with antibiotics and have had good outcomes, the university’s Associate Professor Katrina Bosward said.

"The flip side is that because Q fever manifests as a flu-like illness in most cases, it is often mistaken for a viral infection," she added.

"By the time it is diagnosed, it's too late, and you've gone into the chronic forms."

What about the animals?

While Australia has a vaccine for humans, there isn't one for animals that is produced locally. There is a vaccine available for livestock in Europe.

"It is produced in a factory where other live vaccines for diseases not present in Australia are manufactured," the University of Sydney said.

"That poses a risk of those diseases escaping into our environment."

Animals infected with Q fever do not show symptoms.

However, there is strong scientific evidence to suggest Q fever can cause a spate of abortions and impact reproductive capacity and milk production.

“It's not just a public health concern, and it could be costing farmers more than they realise,” Prof Bosward said.

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