Q fever vaccine urged for at-risk group

Doctors in the Netherlands have urged the country’s caretaker health minister, Ab Klink, to order a batch of Q fever vaccines for people at risk of developing complications from the goat and sheep disease, reported March 29.

In particular, people with heart and vascular problems are vulnerable to Q fever, doctors at a special clinic in Den Bosch have told the minister in a letter.

So far 10 people have died of Q fever in the Netherlands.

The vaccine has been used in Australia since 1989 and has halved infection rates over the past 10 years, the doctors say. It has successfully protected humans in occupational settings in Australia.

A vaccine for use in animals has also been developed, but it is not available in the United States.

Coxiella burnetii is a highly infectious agent that is rather resistant to heat and drying. It can become airborne and inhaled by humans. A single C. burnetii organism may cause disease in a susceptible person. 

Dutch government vets are in the middle of culling all pregnant goats on farms where Q fever has been found. The bacterium that leads to Q fever is released when infected sheep and goats have miscarriages and spreads easily.

In total, more than 40,000 animals on some 75 farms are being killed in an effort to get the spread of the disease under control.

Q fever was relatively unknown in the Netherlands prior to 2007, when about 15 cases a year were reported. Last year, there were over 2,300 official cases.

Q-fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by goats, moves from farms to larger population in the Netherlands.

The rare disease normally strikes farm animals, but has now infected hundreds of people who have no contact with farms. Most people who contract the illness come down with flu-like symptoms or pneumonia for a few weeks, but some are sick for months and a handful have died.

"It's always been an occupational disease of farmers, slaughter house personnel and veterinarians," said Jos van de Sande, an infectious disease expert at the public health department in the Dutch province of Brabant. ??

But recently, many who have no connection to farms are coming down with Q-fever and the number of patients is growing. Three years ago the Netherlands had fewer than 200 cases. Last year, it had more than 2,000.

??It's not clear why the disease is spreading.

Van de Sande says the bacteria may have mutated. "And now Q-fever is spread by the wind, and the whole population can get it."

Meanwhile, other European countries are watching the situation closely, as the disease has spread to a few Belgian farms across the border.