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Q fever

Q fever

Q fever is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii that affects both animals and humans.  It has been reported to be present in a wide range of species, including cattle, sheep and goats, as well as birds and arthropods in many areas in the world.  

It was first recognised as a disease transmissible from animals to humans in abattoir workers in 1935 in Australia. In recent years, the number of confirmed cases in humans increased, in particular in Germany and The Netherlands.

Coxiella burnetii does not usually cause clinical diseases in animals, although abortion in goats and sheep has been linked to infection with this bacterium.  In humans, Q fever may cause flu-like symptoms, including fever and headache, diarrhea and vomiting. In some cases it can cause pneumonia and hepatitis. Chronic Q fever (characterized by an infection lasting more than 6 months) is uncommon but a much more serious disease with complications such as inflammation of the inner lining of the heart (endocarditis).

Most human infections result from the inhalation of dust contaminated with bacteria from the placenta and birth fluids or faeces from infected animals. In some cases the disease can be transmitted by the consumption of contaminated milk or contact with infected animals, especially animals that are giving birth. Other modes of transmission, including tick bites and human to human transmission are extremely rare. 

EFSA’s role and activities

Scientific advice on Q fever

Following the increase of Q fever cases in humans reported in 2008 and in particular in the last months of 2009 in some EU Member States, the European Commission asked EFSA to provide urgent scientific advice to inform possible EU risk management measures in this area.

EFSA’s Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) will lead the work with the support of the Panel on Biological Hazard Panel (BIOHAZ) and in close collaboration with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

A scientific opinion is expected by the end of April 2010. The Panel will look at the occurrence and spread of Q-fever in farm animals and humans across the EU, assess the risks factors related to the disease, as well as evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of disease control options. These may include vaccination, animal movement and biosecurity restrictions and pharmaceutical treatments.

Zoonoses Data Collection

In the context of their work on gathering and sharing information on zoonoses in different EU Member States, EFSA and ECDC collected data on occurrence of Q fever in animals and humans.  The information is published in the Annual Community Summary Report on Zoonoses and Food-borne outbreaks for 2008.

The report gives an overview of zoonotic infections shared by humans and animals and disease outbreaks caused by consuming contaminated food, based on data provided by Member States.

The report also identifies Q fever cases in humans and animals (cattle, sheep and goats) notified in the EU. It highlights that the number of reported cases in humans has increased in 2008, with 1,594 cases compared to 585 in 2007. In animals, the highest infection rates were reported in goats, increasing from 9,7% in 2007 to 15,7% in 2008.

EFSA is inviting Member States to provide latest information on the occurrence of Q fever in animals in their respective countries.

EFSA will also issue in spring 2010 guidance for Member States on monitoring and reporting of Q fever in animals.

EU framework

Directive 2009/99/EC on the monitoring of zoonotic agents requires EU Member States to monitor and report on cases of Q fever in animals warranted by the epidemiological situation. Furthermore, Commission Decision 2000/96/EC, as amended by Decision 2003/534/EC, lists Q fever in humans as a communicable disease to be monitored and controlled in the EU.