Q fever: what it is, how to diagnose it and how to treat it

Q fever is a disease caused by the infection of a bacterium, Coxiella burnetii. It is present all over the world, especially where there is an abundance of livestock

Q fever is a disease caused by infection with the Coxiella burnetii bacterium

It occurs worldwide, especially where there is an abundance of livestock, but is not very common.

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of recorded cases of Q-fever, due to improvements in diagnosis, also in Europe and especially in the Netherlands.

What are the causes of Q fever?

Coxiella burnetii remains for many months in the faeces and urine of infected animals and can be transmitted to humans by inhalation of very small airborne particles containing the micro-organism.

It can also be transmitted by the consumption of unpasteurised milk, while it is very rare for the disease to be transmitted from person to person.

Coxiella burnetii is one of the most infectious microbes: less than 10 bacteria are sufficient to infect a person.

For this reason it is regarded as a potential weapon, especially in the hands of terrorists (bioterrorism).

Symptoms of Q fever

Symptoms of the disease may resemble those of a flu, thus:

  • High fever;
  • Headache;
  • General malaise;
  • Chills;
  • Dry cough;
  • Muscle aches and pains;
  • Nausea;
  • Stomach pains;
  • Chest pains;
  • Vomiting;
  • Diarrhoea.

If the disease complicates, pneumonia may occur.

If the infection lasts longer than 6 months, it is called chronic Q fever and complications may occur in the heart and liver (hepatitis).

Infection of the heart usually affects the heart valves (endocarditis).

Diagnosis of Q fever

The diagnosis of Q fever is made by molecular investigations (PCR) for the parasite’s DNA and by detecting antibodies to Coxiella burnetii in the blood.

Immunofluorescence tests on infected tissues may also lead to a diagnosis.


Q fever: how is it treated?

In the case of a confirmed diagnosis, the drug used is an antibiotic (Doxycycline).

Children under 8 years of age, pregnant women and patients allergic to Doxycycline can be treated with Trimethoprim-Sulfamethoxazole.

In cases of chronic Q fever, antibiotic administration should be continued for several months.

How is Q fever prevented?

A vaccine is available to prevent the fever and is currently marketed in Australia, where vaccination is also recommended to protect workers at risk (veterinarians, shepherds, shearers, dairy workers).

It is important to maintain appropriate hygiene measures when handling animals and products from slaughtering or milking.

In particular, it is important to avoid unpasteurised milk and dairy products made from unpasteurised milk.

The disease often manifests itself in a mild form and if treated does not lead to complications.

In cases of untreated chronic fever, complications, especially of the heart, can be serious or even fatal.

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Bambino Gesù

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