News FocusInfectious Diseases

Questions Abound in Q-Fever Explosion in the Netherlands

Science  15 Jan 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5963, pp. 266-267
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5963.266-a

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Summary

Just before Christmas, the Dutch government decided to cull about 40,000 pregnant goats at more than 60 farms in hopes of halting the worst outbreak ever of a little-known bacterial disease called Q fever. Q fever causes little disease in animals, but it can lead to abortions and stillbirths—and when it does, the animals' placentas and birth fluids contain many billions of microbes that spread easily into the environment. Such outbursts are assumed to have caused increasingly bigger waves of human Q-fever victims—most of whom come down with pneumonia—in the Netherlands the past 3 years. In 2009, there were more than 2300 human cases, including six deaths. Until now, Q fever has been seen primarily as a rare occupational disease for farmers, veterinarians, and slaughterhouse workers and as a potential—if not very deadly—bioterror agent. Nobody is sure what triggered the explosive outbreak in the Netherlands, which has sickened mainly people who never had contact with animals, so the small cadre of Q-fever experts elsewhere in the world are following the Dutch struggle with fascination. Ironically, an increase in goat farming since the devastating swine flu outbreak that ruined the Dutch pig industry in the 1990s may be behind the current outbreak.