Another surge in the number of cases of Q fever in people in the Netherlands has been reported. Prior to 2007, the average number of cases of Q fever per year in the country was only 15. In 2007 there were 192 cases, and last year there were 958 cases, making this the largest community outbreak of Q fever ever reported. At the beginning of May 2009, another jump in the number of cases – over 200 – was reported by the dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.
Q fever is caused by a highly infectious organism called Coxiella burnetii. The organism can be carried by many different animals, but particular sheep and goats, and sometimes cattle. Most of the time it does not cause a problem in these species, but it has been linked to abortions and abortion storms (i.e. when many animals in the herd abort in a short period of time). It can be shed in manure, urine and milk, but the largest numbers of organisms are found in birth fluids and tissues (e.g. aborted fetuses, placentae). When the tissues and fluid dry out, the organism can be stirred up into the air over short distances in dust. Humans are highly susceptible to C. burnetii, and inhaling even a single organism can cause infection. Most of the time people who get sick have signs very similar to the flu, but severe pneumonia and liver disease can develop in a small number of cases.
A definitive link between sheep and goats and the Q fever outbreak in people in the Netherlands has not yet been established, but it is highly suspected that many of the cases are associated with infected goats (and some sheep). In the last two years numerous outbreaks of Q fever have been reported on dairy goat farms and one dairy sheep farm in the Netherlands. This has lead to a cooperative arrangement between the Dutch agricultural ministry and the Dutch public health ministry – these two goverment branches have come together to help cover the costs of vaccinating sheep and goat herds in the country, in order to help stem the tide of disease and ultimately prevent more human cases. This is a great example of the "one medicine" concept, whereby groups on both the human health and agricultural/animal health sides are working together on this problem.
Manditory vacciation is now required for sheep and goats on larger farms in the hardest-hit areas, as well as any farms reporting any cases of Q fever since 2005, and any sheep or goats that have a "public function" (e.g. petting zoo animals or occupational therapy farms). It is very important that this last group is included under the manditory vaccination, as these animals have a large amount of contact with people. Steps have also been taken to improve hygiene, restrict spreading manure from sheep and goats, restrict visitors to infected farms, and to make abortion storms on sheep and goat farms reportable, so they can be investigated for Q fever. It will be interesting to see how effective these measures are at controling the outbreak in 2009.
More information on Q fever can be found in our archives.