What is Q fever?
Q fever is a disease caused by bacteria that are spread to humans from animals. Infection can cause severe illness and for some people, Q fever can affect their health and ability to work for many years. Q fever is commonly found in livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) in Australia but other animals including domestic and feral dogs and cats, feral pigs, horses, rabbits, rodents, alpacas, camels, llamas, foxes, Australian native wildlife (notably kangaroos, wallabies and bandicoots), some birds and several species of ticks can also spread the bacteria to humans.
Who is at risk of getting Q fever on a farm?
Anyone who works or lives on a livestock farm is at risk of infection. In NSW, most Q fever infections occur in farmers. Infections have also been reported in other agriculture-related occupations including shearers, stockyard workers and livestock transporters. People who live on/near or visit (including tradespeople, fencers, labour hire workers and guests) a livestock farm are also at risk even if they do not handle animals.
How is Q fever spread on farms?
The bacteria are found in the placenta and birth fluids (in very high numbers), urine, faeces, milk and blood of infected animals. The bacteria can spread to infect animal products, materials, air, soil and dust. The bacteria can survive in the soil and dust for years and can be spread over several kilometres by the wind.
On a farm, you can get infected with Q fever by:
- breathing in the bacteria that are in the air or dust:
- while birthing, slaughtering or butchering animals (especially cattle, sheep and goats). These activities carry the highest risk of getting infected.
- when handling infected animals, animal products or materials such as wool, hides, straw, manure fertiliser and clothing (e.g. clothing worn when birthing animals)
- while herding, shearing or transporting animals
- while mowing areas contaminated with infected animal excretions
- when working or living on or visiting a farm
- direct contact with infected animal tissue or fluids on broken skin (e.g. cuts or needlestick injuries when working with infected animals)
- drinking unpasteurised milk from infected cows, sheep and goats.
How do I protect myself?
The Q fever vaccine is the most effective way to prevent infection and is recommended for anyone working or living on a farm aged 15 years and older.
If you are not protected against Q fever (by vaccination or past infection) you should:
- avoid high-risk activities such as birthing, butchering or slaughtering cattle, sheep or goats or any other activity that puts you in contact with their birth products (e.g. handling newborns)
- wear personal protective clothing (e.g. coverall, gloves and boots) and a properly fitted P2 mask (available from pharmacies and hardware stores) and cover cuts and wounds with water proof bandages when handling animal products, waste, placentas and aborted foetuses
- wear a properly fitted P2 mask when mowing areas contaminated with animal faeces
- wash your hands and arms thoroughly in soapy water after handling animals, animal products and potentially contaminated materials
- avoid handling or washing clothing, boots or equipment used during high-risk activities.
How can I protect people in my household?
Encourage your household to get the Q fever vaccine. To protect those who are not immune you should:
- wash your hands and arms thoroughly in soapy water before returning home from the farm
- remove and wash dirty clothing, coveralls, boots and equipment in outdoor wash areas
- avoid taking dirty clothing, coveralls, boots or equipment home from the farm where possible. If you do take clothing home, bag and wash it separately (only handle if immune to Q fever).
Can I make my farm safer?
Farm owners have obligations under work health and safety legislation to protect farm workers. All farm workers should be offered the Q fever vaccine. However, some individuals (such those who cannot be vaccinated or unvaccinated irregular visitors) may not be protected against Q fever infection.
The following measures can reduce the risk of Q fever on the farm but are not a substitute for vaccination.
- situate yard facilities for ruminants well away from residential domestic living areas, where possible
- designate high-risk areas on the farm/property (e.g. animal housing areas, kill floors, yards and pens – particularly those where birthing occurs) where non-immune people are not allowed to enter
- when purchasing new equipment or structures, make sure it is designed to be easily cleaned
- minimise dust and aerosols in animal housing, shearing and slaughter areas where possible. In intensive farms, this may require installation of ventilation systems.
- where possible, prevent animals from eating placental tissue through deep burial or incineration
- avoid using animal placental tissue in compost
- be aware that animal manure can contain Q fever bacteria and handle cautiously e.g. delay the removal of manure from the deep litter sheds or yards for at least one month after the kidding season; compost manure (or alternatively store manure for three months) prior to spreading on farm land for fertiliser
- cover manure during storage and transport, and under-plough immediately (only by someone immune to Q fever) when spread on farm land.
What are the symptoms?
Q fever usually causes a flu-like illness which can be severe. If you experience high fevers and chills, severe ‘drenching’ sweats, painful headaches or extreme tiredness you should see a doctor as soon as sickness begins and let them know if you have recently been on a livestock farm. Early treatment with antibiotics can get you better sooner and reduce your chance of long- term complications.
If you are diagnosed by your doctor with Q fever, you should tell your employer. They are required to provide a safe workplace, which includes controlling for the risk of Q fever. They must notify SafeWork NSW about Q fever infections in employees which may have been acquired in their workplace.
How do I know if animals are infected?
Animals that are infected usually do not appear to be sick. Rarely, Q fever infection in animals can cause abortions (particularly in goats), stillbirth, infertility or pneumonia. A sharp increase in the number of abortions in your animals may be a sign that Q fever is on your farm. Contact your vet if your flock or herd is experiencing fertility problems.
See related factsheets Q Fever, Q Fever Vaccination and Q fever for Veterinary Staff.
For further information on Q fever control on farms including employer responsibilities see the SafeWork NSW Q fever advice or contact SafeWork NSW on 13 10 50.
For other information please call your local public health unit on 1300 066 055.