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Diseases & Topics

Q Fever

Q fever is an animal-borne (zoonotic) disease caused by Coxiella burnetti bacteria. The bacteria are found in healthy cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock, as well as in domesticated pets. While the bacteria do not usually make the animals sick, they can cause disease in people. The bacteria are excreted in infected animals' milk, urine, feces and birth fluids. The bacteria are very resistant to heat, cold and common disinfectants, and can survive for long periods in the environment. Humans are very susceptible to Q fever, becoming infected by breathing in the bacteria from air that contains contaminated barnyard dust. Very few bacteria may be required to cause infection in people. Drinking contaminated milk can also cause Q fever.

The disease can cause high fever, severe headache, chills and sweats, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms. Some people may develop pneumonia or hepatitis. A few may develop a more dangerous, chronic form of the disease that may last for many years and can cause death. Pregnant women, immunosuppressed persons and patients with a pre-existing heart valve defects are at highest risk for chronic Q fever. Q fever is usually treated with antibiotics.

In the United States, Q fever outbreaks have resulted mainly from occupational exposure involving veterinarians, meat processing plant workers, sheep and dairy workers, livestock farmers and researchers at facilities housing sheep. Such exposures can be reduced by educating people in those occupations about proper prevention and control measures.

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