Health protection – guidance

Q fever infections in humans: sources, transmission, treatment

Q fever (Coxiella burnetii) causes illness and sometimes abortion in animals, and it can lead to a pneumonia-like illness in humans.

Q fever is an infection with the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. It is usually, but not always, caught by direct contact with farm animals, especially sheep, cattle and goats. Most cases are sporadic. Outbreaks are unpredictable, and are more likely to affect urban (ie non-immune) populations.

See Q fever description, symptoms, transmission, treatment prevention guidance on NHS Choices.

Complications

Some people who have had acute Q fever may develop a chronic form of the disease, where symptoms persist for more than 6 months. Rarely, endocarditis (infection of the valves of the heart) may occur.

Occasionally acute Q fever in pregnancy, with or without symptoms, can cause premature birth, low birth weight, or abortion.

Q fever acquired during pregnancy is usually asymptomatic in the mother, though chronic infections can become apparent. Chonic infections can put further pregnancies at risk.

Diagnosis

The Rare and imported pathogens laboratory (RIPL) is a specialist centre that provides advice and diagnosis for a wide range of unusual viral and bacterial infections including Q fever. Contact RIPL for test details.

Prevention

No vaccine for Q fever is available in the UK.

Q fever is mainly an occupational disease linked to rural employment. Prevention and control measures are most effective for occupational groups and environments. Restricting access to potentially infected animals and disposing animal birth products safely, for example, prevent infection spread.

Public Health England (PHE) and its partner organisations have produced a Q fever information leaflet for farmers.

Those who should avoid contact with cattle, sheep goats and cats while the animals are pregnant include:

  • pregnant women
  • people with suppressed immune systems
  • people with congenital or acquired heart valve disease, or vascular grafts

Defra and PHE produce advice for pregnant women in contact with animals.

The HSE publish guidance on protecting farmers and farm workers from zoonoses.

The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) produces guidance on a range of dangerous pathogens-related subjects, including ‘Infection risks to new and expectant mothers in the workplace’.