Coxiella Burnetti (Q Fever)

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Guidance for Personnel Working with Ruminants at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

What is Q fever?

Q fever is a zoonotic bacterial infection associated with primarily parturient ruminants, although a variety of domestic and wild animals have also been associated with human infections. The illness is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, weakness, malaise and severe sweats. It is caused by an infection with the bacteria known as Coxiella burnetti. Distribution is worldwide except New Zealand.

How is Q fever spread?

Q fever is spread to humans primarily through airborne dissemination of contaminated dust. Dust becomes contaminated with C. burnetti bacteria that are present in the tissues or body fluids (usually reproductive) of infected animals, and this contaminated dust may be spread for up to half a mile. Direct contact with infected animals (especially pregnant sheep at delivery) or materials that they have contaminated (such as straw or other bedding materials) may also cause an infection. Ingestion of unpasteurized milk products from infected cows, sheep or goats may be a source of infection. Direct person-to-person spread is very uncommon, but can happen. Arthropods (usually ticks) can serve as reservoirs for infections among domestic and wild animal hosts but are not thought to play a role in human transmission.

Who is at risk for infection?

Persons at highest risk for Q fever are those who work with the agent in the laboratory or with infected animals (eg. veterinarians and farmers.)

Is Q fever infection serious?

Q fever may be treated with antibiotics and recovery from the infection is usually rapid. However, complications may occur, particularly in individuals at increased risk, such as people with valvular heart disease, altered immune system, and pregnant women. Complications may include chronic endocarditis (inflammation of the heart), pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs), abnormal liver function tests, and neurologic problems.

How can I protect myself?

People who work with animals who may be infected need to know the signs and symptoms of Q fever and seek treatment if they feel they could be infected. There is a vaccine that is currently not available for general use, but may be available through the Department of Defense for persons who are known to be at high risk of exposure. To minimize inhalation, ingestion, or contact with Coxiella burnetti organisms, the following preventive measures should be undertaken:

  • People working in the at-risk groups should know of the sources of infection and the modes of transmission of the disease.
  • Strict hygienic practices must be followed when pregnant animals, hides, wool, straw, or other contaminated material is handled. This involves the prevention of inhalation of contaminated dust or fluid droplets, adequate disinfection and disposal of material, and prompt treatment of cuts and abrasions
  • Gloves, shoe covers and long sleeved apparel should be worn at all times when working with sheep or other hoofed mammals.
  • N95 Respirators should be worn when working with pregnant sheep.
  • Thoroughly wash hands after handling animals
  • Sanitize lab/surgical areas after animal work.
  • Use disposable supplies whenever possible.

What are the signs of Q fever infection?

Q fever is characterized by a sudden onset of a fever, with other symptoms that include chills, headaches, weakness, malaise (a general sick feeling), and severe sweats. The time to appearance of symptoms is variable, but 2 to 3 weeks after exposure is the most common.

What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

Exposure to aerosols, bites or scratches involving animals or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals require immediate first aid and medical attention. Notify your supervisor! Then, contact the University Police Department at 593-2611 or dial 911.

This page was last updated on: October 9, 2015