What is Q Fever?

Posted on: October 21st, 2014

Our Personal Injury team has been contacted over recent months by a number of service personnel who have been diagnosed with Q fever (or query fever). All of these people appear to have become ill while serving in, or shortly after returning from Afghanistan.

Q fever is a zoonosis. This is a disease which usually affects animals but can sometimes affect humans. It was first identified in the 1930s in Australia when it was called ‘?’ or ‘query’ fever which was later shortened to Q fever.

It is caused by the micro organism ‘Coxiella burnetti’, which is similar to bacteria, but unlike bacteria it forms spores which can survive for long periods in soil.

Q fever is found all over the world, except for New Zealand and Antarctica. Many different species of wild and domesticated animals are infected with it. These animals do not usually become ill but the infection can cause abortion and still births in female animals.

It tends to occur in humans when infected female animals pass birth products or faeces containing the coxiella burnetti microorganism. These products break down into the soil or animal bedding and the coxiella burnetti spores then are caught on the wind and blown around in the air. Humans can breathe in the spores and become infected themselves. This is known as ‘aerosol contamination’.

Sheep, goats and cattle can be infected, and Q fever in humans is often associated with exposure to those animals. It is not necessary for humans to have physical contact with infected animals to become infected themselves, spores can be blown 5km from an infected animal source.

Once spores are breathed in there is usually a period of a few days to a couple of weeks until symptoms develop. The disease starts with an “acute” stage, which is usually a mild illness and many people do not even know that they have been ill, or think that they have just had a cold. Some people with acute Q fever have the same sort of symptoms as flu.

Although most people make a complete recovery from acute Q fever within a short time, some people go on to suffer from a secondary condition, “chronic” Q fever, which can be much more serious. Sufferers of chronic Q fever can have cardiac problems, joint pain, and various other disabling symptoms including chronic fatigue. These symptoms can last a long time and are difficult to treat. 

What is Q fever?

How is it diagnosed?

Blood samples are taken and sent to a lab to test for coxiella burnetti antibodies.

Is it reportable?

Yes – any lab which identifies coxiella burnetti from a human blood sample must notify Public Health England within 7 days or face a £1,000 fine.

How common is it?

Uncommon in England at the moment. Q fever is more common in France and Australia. There are occasional outbreaks of the disease around the world when the incidence becomes higher. There has been an outbreak in the Netherlands in recent years.

How is it treated?

Early treatment of acute fever appears to help clear up the acute symptoms more quickly and reduce the risk of the condition becoming chronic. Chronic Q fever is usually treated with a combination of drugs. For how long chronic Q fever is treated depends on the individual.

Is it preventable?

There is a Q fever vaccine, manufactured in Australia, which is not yet available in this country. Q fever vaccine (called Q Vax) has proved effective in reducing the incidence of Q fever in Australian abattoir workers. One of the most effective ways of preventing Q fever is to increase awareness amongst people who might be at risk, and have proper procedures in place for disinfection and disposing of animal products and bedding.

Why are you telling us this?

Coffin Mew’s Personal Injury team are investigating claims for compensation for people who are suffering from Q fever, the main issue is an apparent lack of awareness about this disease and a consequent failure to diagnose Q fever and begin treatment soon enough. We would be glad to hear from any service personnel, past or present, who have been diagnosed with acute, or chronic, Q fever after a period of deployment in Afghanistan or from anyone who can provide information that may assist us with our investigation.

Please contact Sue Bowler on 023 9238 8021 or email suebowler@coffinmew.co.uk