Issue 49 - Q fever reminder – an occupational hazard for veterinary practice
NSW Health has been notified of two clusters of Q fever infection in staff employed in veterinary clinics in recent weeks.
Q fever is a bacterial disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii that can cause a severe flu-like illness. If not treated, up to one in ten people can develop chronic-fatigue-like illness and other ongoing health problems. While the main carriers of the disease are farm animals such as cattle sheep and goats it is a common misconception that Q fever is only a “large animal” disease when in fact Q fever is spread to humans from a wide range of animals including domestic pets (e.g. dogs and cats) and wildlife (e.g. wallabies and kangaroos).
Veterinary staff have an increased risk of contracting zoonotic infections such as Q fever due to their level of contact with sick animals. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent Q fever, and is recommended for all veterinary practice staff including those not directly in contact with animals, animal products or equipment. This includes veterinarians, overseas graduates, veterinary nurses and assistants, university and TAFE students of animal-related disciplines, school students over 15 years on veterinary work experience, veterinary volunteers, cleaning staff and receptionists of veterinary practices.
In the most recent NSW clusters, it is evident that nursing and cleaning staff were not aware of the increased occupational risk of this disease, and so had not received the vaccination.
Clinic management have a duty to ensure all clinical and ancillary staff (and volunteers) are reminded of this risk.
Under work health and safety legislation, clinic management have obligations to protect people in the workplace who may be exposed to the disease.
All staff should be screened, and if needed, vaccinated against Q fever at least 2 weeks before starting work. While the vaccine and the skin testing is not government funded, costs are tax deductible for most at-risk occupations including the veterinary industry.
There are many resources for you to use to assist you to take care of yourself and those working with you.
1. NSW Ministry of Health Q fever Fact Sheet for veterinary staff (including links to other potentially relevant Q fever factsheets) http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/q-fever-veterinary-staff.aspx
2. Australian Veterinary Association Guidelines for Veterinary Personal Biosecurity. This provides a template infection control plan that may assist superintendents to meet their obligations. www.ava.com.au/biosecurity-guidelines
3. SafeWork NSW factsheet on work health and safety obligations in relation to Q fever https://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/hazards-a-z/diseases/q-fever
4. The “Australian immunisation handbook”, which recommends Q fever vaccine for those at risk of infection with C. burnetii. This includes veterinarians, veterinary nurses, veterinary students, professional dog and cat breeders, wildlife and zoo workers (working with high-risk animals) and laboratory personnel handling veterinary specimens or working with the organism. www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-15
5. Zoetis through Vets Australia has also published very practical information in Infection Control Guidelines https://www.cve.edu.au/sites/default/files/ZOEVET1291_AIDAPInfection%20Control%20V16FINAL.pdf