It’s only when you’re washing the yards out that you realise that something’s wrong. You’re shivering, but it feels like you’re burning up inside. Your head hurts. You ache all over. By the time you’re back at the house, you feel like you’ve been flattened by a milk tanker.
When the cough starts, you drag yourself to the doctor. Good on you for getting yourself sorted – this could be COVID-19! You get tested, but it comes back negative. You can barely get out of bed, and you’re sweating buckets. What the hell’s going on?
Then the doctor calls: your blood test results have come back. You’ve got Q fever.
Q fever is the most common direct animal-to-human disease in Australia, at a rate that is several times higher than countries in Europe and the US.
Like anthrax, there are particular ‘hotspots’ around the country – with a very high concentration in central Queensland and the NSW-Queensland border.
However, it can be found pretty much anywhere with wildlife or livestock.
Unlike COVID-19, which is indiscriminately infecting pretty much everyone, Q fever affects one population in particular: farmers, veterinarians and abattoir workers. That’s us.
For most people, the symptoms are mild or non-existent. However, some sufferers are seriously affected, resulting in debilitating symptoms like fever and chills, severe headaches, muscle and joint pain and heavy sweating.
A small percentage of people develop chronic long-term infections – where the disease attacks the heart or other organs – or experience post Q fever fatigue syndrome with extreme tiredness that lasts for years, affecting their ability to work and quality of life.
Between 1993 and 2005, it caused 17 hospitalisations per month across Australia. In very rare cases, it can be fatal.
Q fever is caused by a bacterium that is shed in the placenta and birth fluid, urine, faeces, blood and milk of infected animals.
Once in the environment, the bacteria can survive in soil and dust for years and may spread several kilometres in the wind.
Infection occurs when a person breathes in droplets or dust that have been contaminated by the bacteria – and astonishingly, it can take as few as only one or two bacteria to cause the disease.
In case you’re the kind of farmer that ‘doesn’t have the time’ to see their GP, it might be helpful to know that Q fever can be treatable, especially if caught early.
While untreated acute Q fever can last up to six weeks, getting onto a course of antibiotics will generally narrow that down to two to three weeks.
Also, if the infection is left unchecked, the person is at greater risk of developing complications in addition to suffering for longer – so it’s definitely worth visiting your doctor if any of these symptoms sound familiar to you.
Of course, you could just skip all that time wasted lying around in a miserable fever haze by simply getting vaccinated.
Avoiding animals and animal products might be a possible prevention strategy for some people, but it doesn’t work very well when you’re putting cups on cows every day.
Simply being in a contaminated area, even without animal contact, can put you at risk.
Vaccination for Q fever is very safe and effective but requires a screening test to check for existing immunity.
Best to enquire at your local GP for more information about the process (I swear I’m not getting paid by the medical profession to write this) or else, you can find a registered vaccinator near you by visiting this address: https://www.qfever.org/findvaccinator.
If you’ve recently hired new workers, it’s worth getting them vaccinated as well. Obviously, you care about their well-being. However, there have also been several cases of affected employees successfully suing their employers for very large sums of money.
Finally, if you or someone you know has been affected by Q fever, Dr Tabita Tan at Charles Sturt University is currently investigating the impact of Q fever on patients and families in Australia. After a massive outbreak in the Netherlands from 2007 to 2010 (where 4026 human cases were identified and the long-term effects are still emerging), a research program was established in Australia to try and protect our farming communities against the disease.
Your experience with Q fever could help inform Australia’s strategy for preventing and managing a similar outbreak, so if you’re interested in lending a hand, check out her project at the following website address: www.research.net/r/Qfever.
*Ee Cheng Ooi is a cattle veterinarian undertaking a PhD in fertility and genetics at DairyBio. All comments and information in this article are intended to be of a general nature only. Please consult the farm’s vet for herd advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to a herd’s particular needs. Comments and feedback are welcome, email firstname.lastname@example.org.