Mon, 03/11/2019 | News

New research shows Q fever vaccination needed for rural residents

Researchers are calling for increased Q fever vaccination in rural residents as a new study finds people who are not in recognised high-risk groups are still at increased risk of catching the highly infectious disease.

New research from the University of Sydney finds that rural residents are at increased risk of catching Q fever, including those residents who are not currently in high-risk groups recommended for vaccination.

Q fever is a highly infectious bacterial disease that can cause a severe flu-like illness. It is commonly found in rural and regional areas with the bacteria spread to humans from animals, mainly cattle, sheep and goats. Most cases are asymptomatic, but in some the infection can lead to pneumonia, bone and joint infections, chronic Q fever, heart disease and debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome.

The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that only 40 per cent of people in groups recommended for vaccination knew about the Q fever vaccine, and only 10 per cent of people in these high-risk groups were vaccinated.

This is the first community-based study in Australia designed to measure past exposure to Q fever and identify factors associated with exposure. The researchers sampled 2,740 blood donors in metropolitan Sydney and Brisbane, and in non-metropolitan regions with high Q fever notification rates (Hunter New England in New South Wales and Toowoomba in Queensland).

Lead author Associate Professor Heather Gidding from the University of Sydney and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) said: “As expected, evidence of past exposure through Q fever antibodies was higher in non-metropolitan than metropolitan regions in both NSW and Queensland".

“One in 20 rural Queensland donors showed evidence of past exposure; however, 1 in 36 Sydney residents also had antibodies, indicating that exposure to Q fever is more common than expected."

“Adults who have regular contact with sheep, cattle or goats, abattoir workers, and those assisting with animal births had the highest levels of exposure and these groups are recommended to receive the Q fever vaccine."

“However, having lived in a rural area with no or rare contact with sheep, cattle or goats was itself associated with exposure, even after accounting for other exposures. This means you are highly likely to be exposed to Q fever, not because you work with animals, but just because you live in a regional or rural area."

“We also estimate that 29 to 39 per cent of people with symptomatic Q fever were not actually diagnosed with the disease.”

Co-author Associate Professor Nicholas Wood from the University of Sydney and NCIRS said: “Awareness of and access to Q fever vaccine needs to be improved – we need to increase vaccination rates for all people living in rural and regional areas".

“With only 40 per cent of people in groups recommended for vaccination knowing about the Q fever vaccine, and only 10 per cent vaccinated, there are a lot of people at risk of catching the disease."

“Raising awareness about Q fever and the vaccine in rural communities and among health care workers will help improve uptake of what is a highly effective vaccine," he said.

“A new online training module for rural general practitioners has recently been developed by the Communicable Diseases Branch, Health Protection New South Wales through the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and should improve awareness of the vaccine as well as general practitioners’ knowledge about Q fever and how to diagnose it."

“We recommend more detailed studies in rural communities to identify reasons for their increased risk. But given we found that most rural donors were exposed to multiple risk factors, it would be a good idea for people to discuss with their GP their own need for the Q fever vaccine,” he said.

Key facts on Q fever:
Q fever is caused by the highly infectious bacterium Coxiella burnetii, which has an almost world-wide distribution. C burnetii infects both wild and domestic animals and their ticks, and humans are exposed via the inhalation of infected droplets or dust.