Little-known infection could be widespread

The infection, which can affect both animals and livestock handlers, 
usually doesn’t produce symptoms but can sometimes be very serious

A poorly ventilated sheep barn can be “a perfect place to get Q fever,” says an infectious disease specialist.
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It’s an under-reported disease and people who catch it often don’t show any symptoms.

But an Alberta medical doctor still wants to know more. Q fever, known as coxiella, is an infection that can affect livestock handlers and their animals.

“In Alberta, we only have about six human cases a year that are recognized — it’s not very common,” said Stan Houston, professor of medical and public health at the University of Alberta and an infectious disease specialist.

“Basically, these are the people who get sick enough to get intensive medical investigation. Many doctors aren’t very familiar with this and would not make the diagnosis unless there was a correct, specific test.”

Q fever is an infection caused by a bacterium that forms hardy spores, which can be airborne and remain in an environment for a long time.

“It’s blown through the air very efficiently. That’s most often how people are infected with this organism,” said Houston.

The risk is greater for livestock handlers who work in poorly ventilated barns and deal with bodily fluids like placenta. The disease is more likely to affect sheep and goats than cattle.

“A poorly ventilated lambing barn would be the perfect place to get Q fever,” said Houston.

There is no systematic monitoring of the infection because there is no risk to consumers of agricultural products, said Houston.

This year, Houston treated one patient who was hospitalized for two weeks with Q fever. The patient, from Peace River, likely caught the infection after helping his parents improve their lambing barn. The patient is better now, after the use of antibiotics and a long recovery period. His case is a rarity.

“Most people who get Q fever have no symptoms or have symptoms that are non-specific, so they get better on their own,” said Houston. “Most people don’t get seriously ill. Most doctors would not do the test, so it is probably under-reported and it’s not known how much transmission is happening.”

And the lack of knowledge concerns Houston.

“We’re not pushing this as the next ebola; it’s not going to take over and decimate Alberta farming families. But the biggest issue is that we really haven’t a clue as to how much transmission is out there and that’s hardly the ideal situation. We should know more about what is going on, and then we can make an informed decision, if there’s anything that should be done about it, or not.”

Many people who catch the infection and who show no symptoms will not see any ill effects, although the infection could cause miscarriages in pregnant women.

Mild cases may look like the flu or pneumonia.

“It’s reasonably likely that this is happening at some level in the province all the time and is not recognized,” said Houston.

But in rare cases, Q fever can infect the heart valves and be fatal.

Even though little is known about the infection, livestock handlers can reduce the case of infection by wearing gloves, practising good hygiene in the barn, and washing their hands. Proper ventilation in barns can also mitigate the risk.

Since Q fever is a zoonotic disease, it can infect animals and cause abortions.

“If a producer is seeing more abortions in their flock than usual, then you can get that checked out by the vet,” said Houston.

The vet can arrange a test on the fetus or placenta.

Q fever was discovered in the 1930s in Australia, after a group of abattoir workers fell ill with the infection.

“But nobody knows how long it has been here. There’s been no systematic look at the disease in Alberta,” said Houston.

To learn more about the disease, Houston recently sampled blood from 45 volunteers in the Peace River region in Alberta and B.C. Thirty of the volunteers were producers, while 15 of them worked in a local abattoir. The samples are now being tested in the national reference laboratory in Winnipeg. If the samples show that the volunteers have been exposed to Q fever, Houston will share the information with Alberta Health and discuss what to do.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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