Drought may raise risk of Q fever

Q fever is carried by cattle, goats, sheep and other domesticated wild animals.

People in regional and rural NSW are being warned to get vaccinated and take other steps to guard against Q fever, as drought and high winds may increase the risk of the disease spreading.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Health Director Communicable Diseases, said Q fever is a serious bacterial infection caused by inhaling dust particles contaminated by infected animal secretions, that does not just affect farmers or people who deal with livestock.

“The infection is carried by cattle, goats, sheep and other domesticated and wild animals, so people who work on the land are most at risk,” Dr Sheppeard said.

“However, the bacteria can easily be carried on farm tools or work clothes and brought into the family home.”

So far this year, there have been 141 confirmed cases of Q fever notified to NSW Health, with an increase in the number of cases in the Western, Southern and Hunter New England regions. In 2018, there were 224 confirmed cases of Q fever throughout the state.

“This reflects the increase seen across Australia over the past several years and the emergence of the disease in groups who do not regularly work on farms or abattoirs, such as Aboriginal people, itinerant workers and contractors.”

Q fever symptoms often appear like severe flu, with high fevers and chills, sweating, severe headaches, muscle and joint pains and extreme fatigue. Chronic lethargy can remain for months after treatment.

Dr Sheppeard said a single dose vaccine is recommended for people who work in high risk occupations and anyone over 15 years who has the potential to be exposed to Q fever.

“Q fever occasionally affects children, and as the vaccine is not recommended for those aged under 15, it is very important parents know how to protect children from Q fever,” she said.

The following steps can protect against Q fever:

  • washing hands and arms thoroughly in soapy water after any contact with animals
  • wearing a properly fitting mask when handling or disposing of animal products or when mowing or gardening in areas with livestock or native animal droppings
  • wearing protective clothing and thick gloves when working with high risk animals or animal products
  • removing and washing dirty clothing, coveralls, boots and equipment in outdoor wash areas to prevent exposing other household residents
  • washing animal urine, faeces, blood and other body fluids from equipment and surfaces and properly disposing of animal tissues including birth by-products.

The NSW Government is investing around $1 million to help protect farmers and other people in rural areas who work with animals from Q fever.

The NSW Government is working with the NSW Farmers’ Association, the NSW Country Women’s Association, SafeWork NSW, and other primary industry stakeholders to develop and disseminate the Q fever education campaign.

In 2018 NSW Health launched an online learning module to help GPs diagnose Q fever and vaccinate susceptible people. In the first 12 months over 400 GPs enrolled in the course.

For more information on Q fever, go to the NSW Health website