Science at the Salt House: Q fever
A public lecture in Cairns next Wednesday (26 September) will focus on Q fever — a disease once associated with rural and abattoir workers, but now known to be prevalent in some Queensland metropolitan areas.
“Q fever starts out like a nasty dose of the flu, and for some people that might be all they’ll experience,” Dr Brenda Govan from James Cook University’s School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences said. “But others can develop chronic fatigue, and for a small percentage of people Q fever can cause very serious illness.”
Coxiella burnetii, the bacteria responsible, is carried by sheep, cattle and goats, making Q fever a known risk for workers including shearers, pastoralists and meat processors.
“It’s preventable by vaccine, and many people who work in those industries are now vaccinated,” Dr Govan said. “But in recent times only about half the patients presenting to the Townsville Hospital report any link to these animals, so we’ve turned our attention to other possible sources.”
With Q fever being reported in some Townsville suburbs at a rate almost 10 times the state average, Dr Govan has focussed her work there, investigating possible explanations including the dust from cattle trucks, suburban expansion into the bush, pets and native animals.
“Coxiella burnetii is highly infectious and very hardy – it can survive in dust or soil for a year or more, and can travel long distances in wind-blown dust,” she said.
“Animals that breathe the dust become infected, and that includes domestic cats and dogs, as well as native animals including kangaroos and bandicoots and the local tick population. It’s possible that as our suburbs spread out into areas that were previously farmland or bush, increasing numbers of people and their pets are being exposed.”
Dr Govan’s research includes testing samples of soil, dust and native animal scats for Coxiella burnetii. “Yes, there’s a glamorous side to this research, but collecting and testing bandicoot poo will be well worthwhile, if we can clarify how people are coming into contact with the bacteria.”
Dr Govan said the majority of Q fever cases in the far north were from outside the metropolitan area. “Because those numbers of suburban cases in particular parts of Townsville are so significant, we hope we can find some explanations there for any ‘non-traditional’ cases that might occur in other Queensland towns and cities.”
Dr Govan will be speaking at The Salt House, on Pier Point Road in Cairns, at 6.30pm on Wednesday 26 September. Admission is free and all are welcome.
Issued September 14, 2012
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