Q fever – know the risks
What is Q fever?
Q fever is an illness caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. Q fever is spread to humans from infected animals. The bacteria survive for long periods in the environment as they are resistant to heat, drying and many disinfectants.
Q fever is usually an acute infection but it can sometimes lead to a chronic illness. It is considerably under-diagnosed and under-reported. 20 to 25 per cent of cases do not fully recover, with sufferers going on to develop long-term chronic fatigue. In chronic cases, Q fever can also be fatal.
Australia has one of the highest reported rates of Q fever in the world – mostly in NSW and Queensland – with rates 2, 3 and 6 times higher than in France, the European Union and the United Kingdom respectively. There are around 600 notifications of Q fever each year, though it is believed that the rate of infection is much higher. Notifications have doubled since 2011.
Am I at risk?
People at the highest risk of Q fever include abattoir and meat workers, farmers and shearers, and vets and vet nurses. Birthing animals or shearing can put you at an increased risk, but Q fever is not just confined to people working with livestock. It can be contracted by people living near abattoirs, saleyards, and working with cats, dogs, and wildlife.
The bacteria survive for long periods in the environment as they are resistant to heat, drying and many disinfectants. The risk of contracting Q fever is usually higher in drought conditions as the pathogens can live in dust.
Northern New South Wales towns including Guyra and Gunnedah are hotspots for Q fever, with as much as 22 per cent of the population showing exposure to the disease.
How can I protect myself?
A vaccine is available to protect against Q fever. Vaccination is recommended by NSW Health for all people who are working in, or intend to work in, a high-risk occupation. Vaccination requires blood and skin tests before receiving the vaccine to ensure you haven’t previously been exposed to Q fever. You can go to www.qfever.org to find out if there are any qualified GPs near you. Some elements of the test and vaccine cannot be bulk-billed.
You can also take measures on-farm to reduce the spread of Q fever, including thoroughly washing your hands after handling animals, reducing dust around animal housing, and wearing protective gear when helping to birth animals.
What is NSW Farmers’ Q fever policy?
NSW Farmers is asking the government to take the risk of Q fever seriously. We’re asking for better training for rural GPs to ensure they can diagnose and treat Q fever. We would like to see free testing and vaccination clinics for those most at risk of contracting Q fever, as well as awareness campaigns in communities at risk. Most importantly, we’re asking for the federal government to place the Q fever vaccine on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.