Bioterrorism

FAQs - "B" Agents

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Q Fever

What is Q fever?

Q fever is a disease caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. C. burnetii can be found in animals (especially cattle, sheep, and goats) throughout the world.

How do people become infected with the Q fever bacteria?

People usually become infected with Q fever by breathing in airborne particles that contain C. burnetii bacteria. This most often occurs in barnyard settings through the inhalation of dust contaminated with dried placental material, birth fluids, and excreta of infected herd animals. 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. Other modes of transmission, such as tick bites and human-to-human transmission, are very rare.

Why are we concerned about Q fever as a bioweapon?

Coxiella burnetii is a highly infectious agent that is resistant to heat and drying. Humans are often very susceptible to the disease, and very few organisms may be required to cause infection. This agent could be developed for use in biological warfare and is considered a potential terrorist threat.

What are the signs and symptoms of Q fever?

Only about half of all people with Q fever show any symptoms. Acute cases of Q fever begin with a sudden onset of one or more of the following: high fevers (up to 104°-105° F), severe headache, general discomfort and fatigue, muscle pain, confusion, sore throat, chills, sweats, dry cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and chest pain. Fever usually lasts for 1 to 2 weeks. Weight loss can also occur and may continue for some time. The disease can cause abnormal results on liver function tests and can lead to hepatitis. Additionally, 30% to 50% of people with symptoms may develop pneumonia.

In general, most people will recover to good health within several months without any treatment. Only 1%-2% of people with acute Q fever die from the disease.

Though uncommon, people who have had acute Q fever may develop the chronic form of the disease within 1 to 20 years after first being infected.

How quickly would someone become sick if they were exposed to the Q fever bacteria?

Most people become sick within 2-3 weeks after being exposed to Q fever bacteria, but this depends on how many bacteria have entered the person. The more germs that infect a person, the less time it takes to get sick.

How is Q fever diagnosed?

If the health care provider suspects Q fever, blood samples will be collected and sent to the laboratory to look for antibodies to Coxiella burnetii. Because the signs and symptoms of Q fever are similar to other diseases, it is necessary to perform laboratory tests to make an accurate diagnosis.

Can Q fever be treated with antibiotics?

Yes. Q fever can be treated with antibiotics. Treatment is most effective when started early in the course of illness. Doxycycline is the treatment of choice for acute Q fever.

Is a vaccine available to prevent Q fever?

A human vaccine for Q fever has been developed and has successfully protected workers in occupational settings. However, this vaccine is not commercially available in the United States. A vaccine for use in animals has also been developed, but it is not yet available in the United States.

Find the PDF version of this FAQ in the Zebra Manual.