Q Fever Infection
Did you know? Questions and answers relating to Q fever in humans and animals
What is Q fever? +-
What is Q fever?
Q fever (query fever), also commonly referred to as coxiellosis when occurring in animals, is a disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. Coxiella burnetii can infect humans as well as animals. Usually the pathogen is transmitted from animals to humans – therefore Q fever is a zoonosis.
How do I recognize Q fever – What are the signs and symptoms of Q fever?
- Humans (acute Q fever):
Almost all infections in humans manifest as acute Q fever. Due to the unspecific symptoms acute Q fever can easily be mixed up with a common cold. About 1 to 3 weeks after infection clinical symptoms may occur in about 40 % of the infected individuals. These symptoms include:
- Muscle aches und chills
- Severe headaches, often behind the eyes
In about 10 % of the cases patients suffer from atypical pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs) and/or granulomatous hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Very rarely the infection results in myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium, the protective sac that surrounds your heart) or meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and its meninges). Important: If there is any clinical suspicion of endocarditis (which among others manifests in changes of the cardiac valves, subfebrile temperature) the possibility of chronic Q fever should always be kept in mind and definitely be checked (see also Category: Long-term Health Complications: What is chronic Q fever?).
- Animals (Coxiellosis):
In particular, ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) shed the pathogen via birth fluids, milk and faeces. Symptoms may vary considerably. Especially sheep and cattle infected with Coxiella burnetii appear healthy. Pregnant goats, however, often experience abortions late in pregnancy. In general, the following symptoms may be associated with Q fever in ruminants:
- Delivery of weak offspring (lambs, calves)
- Delayed expulsion of the afterbirth
How does an infection with the bacterium Coxiella burnetii resulting in Q fever occur?
People mainly get infected by breathing in dust or airborne droplets containing the bacterium Coxiella burnetii when having direct or indirect contact with infected sheep, cattle and goats as well as their excretions. Pets (dogs, cats) and wildlife can also be infected and shed the pathogen, even though a transmission to humans has been rarely reported. A larger quantity of the infectious pathogen is shed together with birth fluids and the afterbirth of infected ruminants. Even if an infected herd is located several kilometres away, there is still the chance of being infected when dust carrying the pathogen is spread in the air. The germ can also be transmitted when slaughtering ruminants. However, there is no risk when thoroughly cooked meat is eaten. The risk of being infected by drinking raw milk and eating raw milk products is considered low, but in principle it is possible. (Statement No 018/2010, from March 15, 2010, in German, by Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR)). Pasteurisation results in inactivating the pathogen.
Animals are also mainly infected by breathing in dust or airborne droplets containing the pathogen. Especially the acquisition of infected animals or the presence of other herds nearby as well as other pets e.g. cats can be the reason for introducing the germ. Transmission of C. burnetii is also possible by mating. In practice, it is often not feasible to completely retrace the origin of an infection. The latest scientific studies have shown that an infection with C. burnetii has resulted in a subsequent shedding of the pathogen with birth fluids and afterbirth only in the case of pregnant goats. An infection of non-pregnant animals does not seem to lead to the shedding of C. burnetii in a subsequent pregnancy. So far there has been no conclusive evidence whether other pets (e.g. cats) and ticks transmit C. burnetii. However, above all tick faeces are supposed to play an essential role in spreading the pathogen. Infected ticks shed large quantities of the pathogen together with their faeces.
How is Q fever diagnosed and tested?
Q fever is diagnosed by serological testing i.e. testing for antibodies against Coxiella antigens.
The most sensitive test for diagnosing Q fever is the molecular biological analysis (PCR) of afterbirth products, dead lambs/calves or vaginal swabs which detects the genetic material (DNA) of the pathogen. Using the PCR assay it is possible to detect the momentary excretion of Coxiella burnetii. A serological testing for antibodies against Coxiella antigens does not reliably detect an acute infection, however, it reflects a recent infection.
Is Q fever a reportable disease?
Q fever in humans is a reportable disease under the German Infection Protection Act (Infektionsschutzgesetz (IfSG)). According to § 7 Section 1 IfSG direct or indirect detection of Coxiella burnetii indicating an acute infection is reported by name to the local health authorities.
Q fever or the detection of C. burnetii in ruminants is a reportable disease under the German Regulation on Notifiable Animal Diseases (Verordnung über meldepflichtige Tierkrankheiten (TKrMeldpflV)). At the same time the heads of the veterinary research offices (Veterinäruntersuchungsämter), the local veterinary health authorities (Tiergesundheitsämter) or other public or private veterinary medicine research facilities as well as veterinarians identifying reportable diseases when exercising their profession are obliged to immediately report the occurrence of the disease or the pathogen to the authority responsible under federal state law stating the date of detection, the animal species concerned, the animal stock concerned, the district and the district town.
How many Q fever cases are reported in Germany annually?
According to the Annual Report 2018 of the Robert Koch Institute there are significant variations in the number of acute diseases that have been reported since 2001. The cases reported vary between 86 and 416 per year (average number of 233 infections). Due to the known mild symptoms of acute Q fever an underreporting of cases can be assumed.
According to the Animal Health Annual Report 2018 of the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut between 146 and 309 infections (average number of 225 infections) with C. burnetii were reported annually in animals or herds between 2014 and 2018. An infection with C. burnetii in animals may occur without obvious symptoms, therefore an underreporting of cases can be assumed.
Questions and answers relating to therapies treating acute Q fever
How is acute Q fever treated? +-
How is acute Q fever treated?
Acute Q fever is treated with antibiotics with antibiotic treatment lasting 14 days and the respective antibiotic tablets being taken (e.g. doxycycline). Children under 8 years and pregnant women (see section Pregnancy and Breastfeeding) have to be sometimes be treated with antibiotics from other substance groups (e.g. macrolide). It is very important for children to adapt dosing to the child’s weight.
According to contemporary knowledge the treatment of animals shedding great amounts of infective organisms during an outbreak of acute Q fever in a herd with the aim to significantly reduce or even to stop the number of pathogens is not possible. A treatment with oxytetracycline does not lead to a significant reduction of pathogen shedding. Vaccination does not result in a significant reduction of pathogen shedding either. However, vaccination against C. burnetii decreases shedding of pathogens of infected animals in the long run. Animals should receive vaccination prophylactically, in order to prevent acute Q fever events in ruminant flocks.
- For vaccination recommendations see section “Where do you find additional information?“ and check for STIKO-Vet.
Pregnancy & Breastfeeding
Questions and answers relating to pregnancy and breastfeeding in the case of Q fever
Is Q fever dangerous during pregnancy? +-
Is Q fever dangerous during pregnancy?
Acute infection during pregnancy may increase the risk of miscarriage (mainly when there is a primary infection in the first trimester of pregnancy), premature birth, placentitis (inflammation of placenta) which may result in abortion, or low birth weight of the neonate. A transfer of the pathogen in the womb leading to long-term health consequences has not been described, yet.
Pregnant women diagnosed with an acute infection of Coxiella burnetii should be tested for chronic Q fever by means of a serological test after giving birth.
- (see also section "What is chronic Q fever?")
How are pregnant women treated when suffering from acute Q fever?
If there are signs of acute Q Fever during pregnancy pregnant patients are not allowed to be administered the same antibiotics than healthy women which means antibiotics from another drug class (e.g. cotrimoxazol) have to be taken.(ATTENTON: Administration of cotrimoxazol up to a maximum of pregnancy week 32 is recommended).
May I breast feed my child during acute Q fever?
Women suffering from acute Q fever are advised not to breast-feed whether or not they were treated with antibiotics, as the Q fever pathogen may pass into breast milk and taking antibiotics can possibly not completely prevent the excretion of bacteria into breast milk.
Questions and answers relating to long-term health complications which may possibly arise after having suffered from Q fever
Will there be any long-term health complications, after having suffered from acute Q fever? +-
Will there be any long-term health complications, after having suffered from acute Q fever?
In humans acute Q fever very rarely (in about 1 % of the Q fever cases) results in chronification – i.e. an infection which can be detected even after 6 months.
Chronification may cause the following medical conditions:
- Chronic Q fever with among others inflammation of the heart muscle (endocarditis)
- (see also: What is chronic Q fever?)
- Q fever fatigue syndrome (QFS)
- (see also: What is Q fever fatigue syndrome (QFS)?)
What is chronic Q fever?
An acute Coxiella burnetii infection results in chronification in about 1 % of the cases – i.e. an infection which can be detected even after 6 months. Very often, endocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) develops in patients with chronic Q fever. The incidence of, for example, granulomatous hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) or osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bones or bone marrow) is much lower. Therapy of chronic Q fever is time consuming (serveral years) and if the disease is not treated at all there is a mortality rate of up to 40 % in combination with a high complication rate.
Patients of risk groups with already existing diseases or changes in the blood vessels including heart valves or severe immune suppression (suppression of the body's own defence system) show a markedly increased risk for transition into a chronic Coxiella burnetii infection.
Administering a preventive dose of antibiotics for 12 months after an acute disease may prevent the development of chronification in the above-mentioned risk groups.
How is chronic Q fever treated?
Treating the chronic infection is time consuming. Therefore, a high degree of self-discipline is required and should be carried out by experienced medical specialists (infectologists). In case of chronification a combined therapy of at least 24 months with e.g. doxycycline and hydroxychloroquine is carried out. Therapy related regular check-ups of antibody levels in the blood are required.
In addition, the amount of the antibiotics doxycycline and hydroxychloroquine administered should be monitored. Besides this, a regular examination of the ocular fundus should be performed, as chloroquine may cause damage of the eyes depending on dosage.
What is Q fever fatigue syndrome (QFS)?
After acute Q fever persistent symptoms as well as impairments in the quality of life can occur which may last 12-24 months.
Most frequent symptoms:
- Inconveniences in one's everyday activities
- Muscle pain
- Night sweat
- Affected patients often describe that they haven't reachieved performance and working levels even after one year.
Therapeutically this symptomatic complex is a challenge, as the disease can't be influenced by administering antibiotics. In addition, a diagnostic laboratory test for detecting the disease is not possible. Therefore, psychosomatic and behavioural therapeutic rational approaches are recommended.
Measures in Livestock
Questions and answers concerning the measures which should be taken in case a Coxiella burnetii infection occurs in your livestock. These measures are recommended in Germany.
When do I have to consider Q fever in my cattle/sheep/goats population? +-
When do I have to consider Q fever in my cattle/sheep/goats population?
• Increased abortion rate
• Delivery of weak offspring (lambs/calves)
• Accumulation of delayed expulsion of the afterbirth
• Fertility problems and loss of animal performance such as for example significantly longer calving intervals in cows
What am I supposed to do if Q fever is suspected in my herd/flock?
In case your animals show signs of Q fever, please contact your vet who will arrange for necessary laboratory tests for verification of suspected Q fever diagnosis.
Which measures should I take as owner of the animals in case my animals shed Coxiella burnetii?
- Inform your colleagues and family members about necessary protective and hygiene measures. Serological surveillance for the detection and course of the animal owner’s (incl. the family’s) infection status is reasonable.
- Post a sign near your stables: „Valuable livestock – Do Not Enter. Authorized Personnel Only.“
- Prevent non-authorized people from getting access to your animals.
- Don’t exhibit animals and don’t offer your animals in auctions.
- Don’t sell any animals to new herds/flocks.
- Don’t offer raw milk or raw milk products to consumers and stand down from drinking raw milk and eating raw milk products. The process of pasteurisation results in inactivation of the pathogen.
- Store the dung for 9 months underneath foil as well as apart from any population, before you spread it on the fields. Spreading the dung should occur on calm days with high humidity. Then the dung should be immediately incorporated into the soil.
- Control rodents.
- Make sure births and shearing occur in closed premises.
- If possible, birth assistance should be carried out by people already having antibodies from a former infection. It is understood that this group of people is less susceptible to a new infection with C. burnetii.
- Birth assistance should be carried out by taking safety and hygiene measures into consideration i.e. at least disposable gloves for birth, preferably the farm’s own overalls resistant to boiling or disposable protective clothing, the farm’s own wellies or disposable plastic overshoes, FFP3 protective mask, googles or protective visor.
- Collect all after birth material immediately and store it in a closed container until it is disposed of by animal by-products processing plants (rendering plants). The container should be cleaned and disinfected after having been emptied.
- Strict separation of working and leisure clothes. After leaving the livestock clothing has to be changed. Clean and disinfect your working clothes as well as your working material. Wash clothing as hot as possible, surface disinfection with 70% alcohol or peroxyacetic acid. Disinfect your hands with an alcohol preparation.
- Have your herd/flock vaccinated against C. burnetii.
- Tip: Please consult your Animal Diseases Fund (Tierseuchenkasse) for support for vaccination costs.
Questions and answers concerning vaccination against Q fever for humans and animals.
Is there a vaccine against Q fever? +-
Is there a vaccine against Q fever?
• For humans:
There is no vaccine for humans in Germany. Worldwide the only approved vaccine for humans is available in Australia.
• For animals:
There is an approved vaccine for cattle and goats in Germany. This vaccine can also be used for sheep (so-called reclassification of vaccines). Information about reclassification of vaccines can be found in „Statement for reclassification of immunological veterinary drugs" of StIKo Vet (work group ruminants) in German.
What to do if I intend to have my animals vaccinated against Q fever?
A vaccination schedule should be set up together with your attending vet. Basically, every animal has to have primary immunization first (twice vaccinated at an interval of 3 weeks). Subsequently, an annual booster vaccination is necessary. Depending on the risk of infection such a vaccination schedule may vary, too.
Will costs be covered for the vaccine for my herd/flock?
The Animal Diseases Fund (Tierseuchenkasse) of individual Federal States partly or even completely covers the costs for the vaccine and the vaccination by the vet. The conditions for assumptions of costs have to be inquired with the respective Animal Diseases Fund (Tierseuchenkassen) in advance.
Q fever additional information
Where to find additional information? +-
Where to find additional information?
- Robert Koch Institute provides additional information in German relating to Q fever in humans here.
- Friedrich Loeffler Institut provides additional information in German relating to Q fever in animals here.
- The guideline for Q fever Baden-Wuerttemberg provides recommendations for fighting Q fever in small ruminants in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Download the guidelines in German here.
- The recommendations of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture are intended to assist with checking existing hygiene measures. Especially animal owners and other group of persons being in contact with animals (e.g. live stock traders, carriers) should be made aware of necessary hygiene measures. Download the recommendations in German here.
- The „Guideline Biosecurity in Cattle Farming" deals with the analysis of existing risks of disease introduction in animal husbandry as well as the development of measurements to reduce or prevent this risk. Download the guideline in German here.
- The guideline drawn up by the „work group ruminants" of StIKo Vet (Ständige Impfkommission Veterinärmedizin) for vaccination of cattle and small ruminants is a help for decision-making for the applying vet and can be downloaded in German here. Information in German relating to „ reclassification of vaccines " are found here.
- In addition, further information relating to Q fever can be found on the homepage of the interdisciplinary consortium Q-GAPS (Q fever GermAn Interdisciplinary Program for reSearch).