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Q fever findings a timely post-pandemic reminder for biosecurity vigilance: AgriFutures

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AgriFutures Australia, Media Release, 8 September 2022

After more than six years of multi-disciplinary research, the Q Fever Group – funded by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program – has released the findings of its flagship research project, Taking the Q (query) out of Q fever.

Prioritising biosecurity

Taking the Q (query) out of Q fever

The project findings fell into three broad themes; improving knowledge and management of Q fever in dairy goat herds; understanding Q fever in the environment; and structures to support Q fever management across the human, animal and environmental health sectors.

These research outcomes are particularly timely given the range of biosecurity issues that have impacted Australians recently.

From the Covid-19 pandemic, to the NSW Varroa mite incursion and looming threat of foot-and-mouth disease, the community is more aware than ever of the risks of diseases and how they can impact our economy and our health.

Money is at stake

Dr Bonny Cumming, who managed the project from the University of Melbourne says the research confirmed that there are economic incentives for farmers to avoid, control and eradicate Q fever.

“Our research shows Q fever infection in dairy goats resulted in less milk production,” she says. “When you consider this, with existing research that shows Q fever impacts the reproductive capacity of goats, it provides a critically important economic incentive for taking appropriate biosecurity measures to minimise the risk of acquiring the disease.”

Protecting human health

Charles Sturt University’s Associate Professor Jane Heller, who was involved in the research, adds, “this project prompted us to look at the systems in place across Australia and determine where the gaps are. One key finding was that health structures are quite different between states, and that better communication between human health systems and animal health systems will be critical in the future.”

This finding is particularly important when you consider Q fever is the most common zoonotic disease in Australia.

“While our research across dairy goat farms found that currently the prevalence of Q fever in Australia is relatively low, it does have a profound impact on rural communities,” says Dr Heller.

“It is generally under-reported (in humans) because diagnoses often rely on doctors having a particular interest in and knowledge about infectious diseases. This has severe implications for patients with chronic Q fever who suffer from symptoms similar to long Covid.”

Keeping Q fever at bay

In investigating how Q fever exists and spreads in the intensive livestock environment, the research found that the bacteria had relatively limited spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the sheds in which animals were housed.

Dr Cumming explains, “while our results are based on findings from a single Q fever-positive farm so it’s difficult to make generalisations, we’re pleased to have developed a robust methodology to answer future questions about Q fever risk around known Q fever-positive sites.”

Pioneering policy

To ensure the research was considered holistically, expert workshops were held to streamline Q fever policy, bringing together university and industry partners, including animal health and infectious disease experts from the University of Melbourne, University of Adelaide, Charles Sturt University, the University of Queensland, the Australian Rickettsial Reference Laboratory, Goat Vet Oz and Meredith Dairy.

“From these workshops, strategies were developed to support Q fever management across the animal, human and environmental health sectors,” Dr Cumming says. “This policy work will help ensure the disease is identified earlier and we are in a better position to prevent large-scale Q fever outbreaks in humans.”

The project also helped develop clear guidelines around surveillance testing. Building on this, discussions are ongoing with the Goat Industry Council of Australia (GICA) about developing an industry-approved ‘Q fever freedom’ assurance program.

Remaining vigilant

Industry knows the threats of Q fever are real. Just a decade ago, a large outbreak of Q fever in the Netherlands, resulted in 4,000 confirmed human cases and at least 30 deaths (the cost incurred to human health and agriculture was estimated to be over 300 million euros). Meanwhile, Australia has some of the highest rates of human infection of Q fever in the world, our dairy goat industry is rapidly intensifying, and our climatic conditions are conducive to the spread of Q fever, highlighting the importance of enhanced on-farm biosecurity best practice.

However, thanks to the Taking the Q (query) out of Q fever project, industry is better prepared than ever to mitigate the risks of the disease to protect our health, environment and economy.

Read the final report: Q fever findings a timely post-pandemic reminder for biosecurity vigilance

For more information on the project, visit: agrifutures.com.au/news/collaborative-taskforce-taking-the-query-out-of-q-fever/ and blogs.unimelb.edu.au/q-fever/#about


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