First published 15 May, 2012
A team of James Cook University researchers are investigating the prevalence of the Q fever bacteria in soil samples in residential areas of Townsville.
Q fever is a disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii.
It often appears as a flu-like illness and symptoms may resolve without treatment; however some people develop chronic disease.
In November last year, researchers from JCU and the Townsville Hospital reported an increased incidence of Q fever in residential areas of the city.
Dr Brenda Govan from JCU’s School Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences said one suggestion for the spread of the bacteria was via dust and faecal particles blown from cattle trucks as they travelled the highways.
“We would like to see if there is any evidence for this idea by collecting soil samples from along the highway,” she said.
“Our northern and southern boundaries for the study will be Rollingstone and Alligator Creek.
“We would like to start with the Rollingstone and Balgal Beach communities over the next few weeks and move to the Alligator Creek area a little later in the year.”
The project will involve collecting soil and dust samples as well as native animal scats.
Dr Govan said researchers would be going door-to-door in the Balgal Beach area during the next few weeks, asking residents for permission to collect soil samples from their property.
“We would also like to ask people about their observations and interactions with any wildlife in the area to see if there is any link to the presence of organisms in the soil.”
Dr Govan said another transmission theory was that it may be transferred by feral or native animals to the family pet and then to the owner.
“Traditionally, people think the only risk of contracting Q fever is through occupational exposure with cattle, sheep or goats, such as in the meat processing industry,” she said.
“However, only about half the patients presenting to the Townsville Hospital report any link to these animals.”
Dr Govan said cattle, pet dogs, bandicoots and kangaroos could be infected with C. burnetii, which then shed the bacterium in their urine, faeces and birth products.
The organism can persist in the environment for an extended period of time and people can become infected when they breathe in contaminated dust particles, she said.
“Through studies we have conducted in Townsville, we know that native animals such as bandicoots and wallabies are capable of carrying the bacteria that cause Q fever, but we don’t know what their role is in transmitting the infection to humans.
“It is possible that the bacteria are excreted in the faeces of these animals and this leads to contamination of the environment.”
Dr Govan encouraged residents to get on board with the study, which will hopefully lead to more informed public health decisions.
Any residents wishing to obtain more information about the study can contact Dr Govan on (07) 4781 5607, mobile 0410 975 928 or email Brenda.Govan@jcu.edu.au
JCU Media contact: Caroline Kaurila (07) 4781 4586 or 0437 028 175