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Q Fever

Q fever is a reportable disease in Oklahoma. Q fever is a zoonotic disease caused by Coxiella burnetii, a species of bacteria that is distributed globally. Cattle, sheep, and goats are the primary reservoirs of C. burnetii.  Infection has been noted in a wide variety of other animals, including other species of livestock and in domesticated pets.  Coxiella burnetii does not usually cause clinical disease in these animals, although abortion in goats and sheep has been linked to C. burnetii infection. Organisms are excreted in milk, urine, and feces of infected animals. Most importantly, during birthing the organisms are shed in high numbers within the amniotic fluids and the placenta.  

The organisms are resistant to heat, drying, and many common disinfectants. These features enable the bacteria to survive for long periods in the environment. Infection of humans usually occurs by inhalation of these organisms from air that contains airborne barnyard dust contaminated by dried placental material, birth fluids, and excreta of infected herd animals.  Humans are often very susceptible to the disease, and very few organisms may be required to cause infection. Other modes of transmission to humans, including tick bites and human to human transmission are rare.

Only about one-half of all people infected with C. burnetii show signs of clinical illness. Most acute cases of Q fever begin with sudden onset of one or more of the following: high fevers (up to 104-105° F), severe headache, general malaise, myalgia, confusion, sore throat, chills, sweats, non-productive cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and chest pain. Fever usually lasts for 1 to 2 weeks. Weight loss can occur and persist for some time. Thirty to fifty percent of patients with a symptomatic infection will develop pneumonia. Additionally, a majority of patients have abnormal results on liver function tests and some will develop hepatitis. In general, most patients will recover to good health within several months without any treatment. Only 1%-2% of people with acute Q fever die of the disease.

Chronic Q fever, characterized by infection that persists for more than 6 months is uncommon but is a much more serious disease. Patients who have had acute Q fever may develop the chronic form as soon as 1 year or as long as 20 years after initial infection. A serious complication of chronic Q fever is endocarditis, generally involving the aortic heart valves, less commonly the mitral valve. Most patients who develop chronic Q fever have pre-existing valvular heart disease or have a history of vascular graft. Transplant recipients, patients with cancer, and those with chronic kidney disease are also at risk of developing chronic Q fever. As many as 65% of persons with chronic Q fever may die of the disease.   

The incubation period for Q fever varies depending on the number of organisms that initially infect the patient. Infection with greater numbers of organisms will result in shorter incubation periods.  Most patients become ill within 2-3 weeks after exposure. Those who recover fully from infection may possess lifelong immunity against re-infection.

Because the signs and symptoms of Q fever are not specific to this disease, it is difficult to make an accurate diagnosis without appropriate laboratory testing. Results from some types of routine laboratory tests in the appropriate clinical and epidemiologic settings may suggest a diagnosis of Q fever.

People who spend time on or live near ranches and livestock are at a high risk for Q fever infection; additionally, more cases are reported in older people. Studies have also shown that those with history of heart valve defects, endocarditis, or heart valve implants may be at increased risk for chronic infection.  

Q fever is a reportable disease in Oklahoma. 

General prevention tips for Q fever include:

  • When possible, avoid contact with the placenta, birth products, fetal membranes, and aborted fetuses of sheep, cattle, and goats.
  • Eat and drink only pasteurized milk and milk products.
  • Quarantine imported animals according to established regulations.
  • If you have pre-existing heart valve disease or have had valve replacements, be extra careful around areas with sheep, cattle, and goats.

Symptoms of Q fever are like many other diseases. If you develop symptoms (high fevers up to 104-105° F, severe headache, general malaise, myalgia, confusion, sore throat, chills, sweats, non-productive cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and chest pain) after spending time with or near animals (sheep, goats, and cattle, specifically) visit your health care provider. 

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