Q fever is a bacterial infection that can cause a severe flu-like illness. For some people, Q fever can affect their health and ability to work for many years. The bacteria are spread from animals, mainly cattle, sheep and goats. Even people who do not have contact with animals may be infected. A safe and effective vaccine is available to protect people who are at risk. Screening is required to identify who can be vaccinated.
Q fever is a disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. It is spread to humans from cattle, sheep and goats and a range of other domestic and wild animals. Even people who do not have contact with animals may be infected.
Many infected people have no or few symptoms. People who do become sick often have a severe flu-like illness. Symptoms begin about 2-3 weeks after coming into contact with the bacteria and typically include:
Patients may also develop hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) or pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Without treatment, symptoms can last from 2-6 weeks. Illness often results in time off work, lasting from a few days to several weeks. Most people make a full recovery and become immune to repeat infections. Occasionally, people develop chronic infections up to 2 years later which can cause a range of health issues including heart problems (endocarditis). This is more common for pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems or previous heart problems. About 10% of patients who are sick with acute Q fever go on to suffer from a chronic-fatigue-like illness which can be very debilitating for years.
People usually get infected by breathing in the Q fever bacteria that is in the air or dust. Cattle, sheep and goats are the main sources of infection, however a wide range of animals including domestic and feral dogs and cats, feral pigs, horses, rabbits, rodents, alpacas, camels, llamas, foxes, and Australian native wildlife (including kangaroos, wallabies and bandicoots) can also spread the bacteria to humans. Infected animals often have no symptoms. The bacteria can be found in the placenta and birth fluids (in very high numbers), urine, faeces, blood or milk of animals who are infected with or carry the bacteria. The bacteria can survive in the soil and dust for many years and be spread over several kilometres by the wind.
You can get infected with Q fever by:
Workers in the following occupations are at high risk of Q fever:
All workers who enter workplaces in which Q fever may be present are also at risk of infection. This includes tradespeople, contractors, labour hire workers, sales representatives, buyers and council workers.
Other people may be at risk of Q fever through contact with high-risk animals outside of work. Infections have also occurred in regional and rural areas by breathing in infected dust and particles in the environment.
Other people at increased risk of Q fever include:
A safe and effective vaccine (Q-VAX®) is the best way to prevent Q fever infection. Vaccination is highly recommended for people who work or intend to work in high-risk occupations. Vaccination is also recommended for everyone aged 15 years and over who has the potential to be exposed to Q fever during activities outside of work, or in the environments in which they live or visit.
For those who are not immune (through vaccination or past infection), the following measures can reduce the risk of infection:
The initial suspicion of a Q fever diagnosis is based on symptoms and an understanding of the possibility of coming into contact with the bacteria in the previous 6 weeks. Make sure your doctor is aware if you belong to one of the risk groups described above. Blood tests are required with repeated testing two to three weeks after symptoms begin to confirm the diagnosis.
Early treatment with antibiotics can get you better sooner and reduce your risk of long-term complications. It is important to seek early medical attention if you develop symptoms of Q fever and are in one of the groups at risk of infection. Chronic (long-term) Q fever infection may require long-term antibiotics.
Laboratories must notify the local public health unit of any confirmed Q fever cases. Public health unit staff investigate each case to determine the likely source of infection, identify other people at risk of infection, ensure control measures are in place and provide information to cases.
See related factsheets on Q Fever Vaccination, Q Fever and Farms and Q Fever and Veterinary Staff.
For further information please call your local public health unit on 1300 066 055.