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For Expert Comment:“Q Fever” Mimics the Flu and Can Be Missed by Physicians

University of Missouri researcher searches for vaccination that could be approved by the FDA

Nov. 03, 2010

Story Contact(s):
MU News Bureau,, 573-882-6211

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­­­– Mothers and doctors should think twice before diagnosing the flu, says one MU researcher. The illness could be Q fever, a disease that is very similar to the flu and on the rise around the world, due to an ability to replicate in almost any animal before infecting humans.

Q fever is one of the most infectious diseases in the world, because it only takes one bacterium of Coxiella burnetii to infect the host. The Netherlands is the latest country to experience an outbreak, as they reported 168 cases in 2007 and 2,357 cases in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Because the Netherlands has determined the outbreak came from goats, officials slaughtered more than 50,000 dairy goats and vaccinated approximately 250,000 other animals.

At the Regional Biocontainment Lab at the University of Missouri, Guoquan Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is working on a vaccine that is safe to use in the U.S. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the vaccine currently in use around the world, because if the Q fever bacteria is already present, a severe skin reaction could occur in those vaccinated. Zhang’s work focuses on finding a vaccine that doesn’t cause that skin reaction.

The prevalence of Q fever is unknown because the symptoms – including fever, severe headache, cough, bodily pain and gastro-intestinal symptoms – mimic the flu so closely. Symptoms typically do not surface for two to three weeks after exposure and it is possible for physicians to misdiagnose due to the prevalence of flu cases. An antibiotic treatment makes it easy to recover, but Q fever can only be confirmed by a blood test. Q fever is mostly transmitted through the air, but it can be acquired by drinking unpasteurized milk or from being bitten by a tick. 

“While livestock like cows, sheep and goats are the common carriers of Coxiella burnetti, it has been found in pet animals such as cats, dogs, and birds,” Zhang said.  “Once you have Q fever, it’s very hard to get rid of it, especially if your immune system is already compromised from another health condition.”  

The CDC confirms that because Q fever can become airborne and is resistant to heat and drying, it has the potential to be a biological weapon.  U.S. bio-weapon engineers developed Q fever as a weapon in the 1960s. Its ability to “incapacitate” without being lethal made it a preferable weapon.  Officials are concerned that soldiers returning from the Middle East may carry the bacteria.

Zhang has been continually receiving grants from the National Institute of Health to study Q fever.