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Disease in the dust

Every year in Australia over 300 people are reported as suffering from a debilitating disease known as Q fever. The Blood Service is currently undertaking research into this poorly understood disease to help map the true numbers of those infected across Australia.

We are not sure how many people are carrying the infection in Australia because in many people the infection does not produce symptoms. With the help of some of our donors, researchers from the Blood Service are playing a pivotal role in a study to understand the true size of Q fever infection in Australia and so ensure the ongoing safety of the blood supply.

“We are trying to understand how many of our donors may be unknowingly affected by the disease,” said Blood Service researcher Dr Helen Faddy.

Q fever is an Australian discovery; it was first identified in Queensland in the 1930s. Australia is also the only country in the world where a Q-fever vaccine for humans is available. Once thought to be restricted to abattoir and farm workers, Q fever has recently gained attention following an epidemic in The Netherlands in which more than 4,000 people officially contracted the disease.

Q fever is caused by infection with a bacterium known as Coxiella burnetii (C. burnetii), and people can catch it from animals such as sheep, goats and cattle by breathing in contaminated particles of fluid or dust. In The Netherlands the epidemic centred on a number of infected dairy goat farms, but many of the people infected had no direct contact with the animals. Because C. burnetii can survive being dried out, infection can spread for long distances on dust that has been contaminated with animal matter.

Dry, windy weather may provide ideal conditions for the spread of Q fever, meaning that drought conditions can present a higher risk. This resilience has contributed to Q fever being classified by the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as a Category B bioterrorism agent.

The impact of Q fever infection can be long-lasting. Although the vast majority of people who are infected with C. burnetii will show no symptoms, others go on to develop short or long-term illness, and it is only these patients who are recorded in the official statistics. In some people the disease can be severe, with aches, pains, fevers, chills, blurred vision and extreme tiredness and confusion.

A number of people who have suffered through the disease develop a long-term condition known as post–Q fever fatigue syndrome. These people have difficulty carrying on normal work and their quality of life can be severely affected for as long as ten years after the infection.

The Blood Service research into Q fever, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Blood Authority, involves the collaboration of medical and scientific experts from universities and health services throughout New South Wales and Queensland. The research team is studying thousands of blood samples to get a better picture of Q fever across  these states.

“We have enlisted the help of some donors in New South Wales and Queensland to provide extra blood samples and answer a questionnaire for us,” Dr Faddy said.

“We will compare the results for city dwelling donors with those from areas of Queensland and NSW that are known to be hot spots for Q fever transmission.”

“We will be able to measure their past exposure to the disease, as well as whether they are currently infected. We hope to identify groups who are most at risk by matching the testing from blood samples with information from donors about their lifestyle and occupation”.

Dr Faddy thanked donors for their support of the study.

“Not only will their blood donation on the day save up to three lives, but the extra effort will help ensure the safety of the blood supply for everyone in the future.”