By MATTHEW WEAVER
Washington state officials are urging farmers to use proper precautions when dealing with kidding goats, as various agencies investigate cases in which an animal disease has been found in humans.
The bacterial disease Q fever has sickened five people in the Moses Lake, Wash., area and six people in Montana's Cascade and Teton counties.
Jason Kelly, director of communications for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told the Capital Press the illnesses were the result of contact with goats.
The bacteria that causes Q fever is frequently found in animals, specifically goats, sheep and cattle, Kelly said.
While common, the animals often do not become sick or show symptoms. Owners usually become aware when the animals spontaneously abort their fetuses during the kidding season, which is also the time the bacteria could transfer to humans through birthing fluids.
"Animal owners need to take what many people think of as common-sense precautions -- the typical biosecurity measures that farmers and ranchers take would be appropriate," Kelly said, noting the bacteria is ingested. "That includes washing your hands and changing your clothes after you're done handling your animals, especially if you're assisting in the birthing."
Jana Roberts, Edwall, Wash., goat producer and president of the Inland Northwest Meat Goat Association, likened Q fever to diseases caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) or caseous lymphadenitis (CL).
"It's something that needs to be taken seriously, but not something that needs to cause a panic," Roberts said.
The disease has been around for many years, Roberts said, noting other agencies and states have had to deal with it.
"The breeders need to step up, test their animals and make sure their herds are clean," Roberts said. "The best way to prevent it is to know you don't have it."
Roberts recommends farmers take the time to use precautions while kidding, such as wearing rubber gloves and properly disposing of the afterbirth.
Infected animals shed Q fever bacteria during birth or through fluids like urine, feces or milk, said Donn Moyer, media relations manager for the Washington State Department of Health.
"Those kinds of fluids can then get into the surrounding environment or the barnyard and just be lying there in the dust," Moyer said. "When it's passed from an infected animal into a person, it's often from a person breathing in contaminated dust or if they're helping an infected animal during the birthing process."
The Washington state veterinarian has quarantined two herds in Washington's Grant County at the request of the state Department of Health, Kelly said. Herd health plans will help identify which animals may be spreading the virus. Those animals will be isolated and treated to prevent further infections.
The investigation is ongoing, Kelly said.
It's rare for the zoonotic disease to be transferred to humans, Moyer said. Washington averages zero to three cases per year.
"More than likely, it possibly is linked to conditions at the place where these goats are or in how these people were handling them," he said, noting the investigation will look for causes.
Moyer said testing takes a while. Three of the Washington human cases are listed as probable with symptoms, while two have no symptoms but tested positive.
"All of the people who were involved came into contact with this goat herd," Moyer said. "They're all connected to it somehow."
Symptoms are flulike and include high fever, headaches, abdominal pain, chills, nausea, chest pain, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Associated Press.
Multiple agencies, including the health department, agriculture department, Grant County Health District, USDA and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention are cooperating in the investigation.
Moyer said the group is investigating where goats from the herd have been sold and whether other goats have been in contact for breeding purposes, awaiting test results.
Goats from the Grant County farm were traced to Spokane, Adams, Pend Orielle, Walla Walla, Franklin, Clark, Thurston, Kittias and Chelan counties in Washington, according to the Associated Press.
Q fever at a glance
Steve Parish, professor of large animal medicine at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, is one of the researchers involved in the investigation of Q fever.
The Q stands for "query," Parish said, and derives from its first appearance in Australia in the late 1930s. Vaccinations for people are available in Australia and for animals in Europe, but not in the United States.
Q fever is relatively widespread among livestock, but rarely causes diseases. On those occasions, it's associated with reproductive events, such as an abortion or the birth of weak kids or lambs.
"That's almost a rare side of the disease where it causes animals to get sick," Parish said. "We can't just look at a cow, sheep or a goat and say, 'Aha, you have this disease.'"
The bacteria are very hardy and can survive in an environment for months, he said.
Parish urges farmers to protect themselves whenever working around animals during the birthing process, whether it be a normal process or a reproductive failure.
People most at risk are those with a weakened immune system, older or pregnant, Parish said.
"We just have to wait and let the investigation run its course here," Parish said. "Hopefully, we'll get more and better information. There's some really good people working on it right now."