Hidden epidemic: Crippling disease strikes region
STRUGGLING to get out of bed every day, Central Queensland man Graeme Lang 'thought he was dying'.
In the space of four days, the 47-year-old grazier's health spiralled and by the fifth day he was sitting in the waiting room of his GPs office staring at a poster encouraging patients to get vaccinated for Q Fever --- an air-borne illness caused by virus coxiella burnetti which can affect the valves of the heart and liver causing long-term effects of fatigue.
Little did Graeme know, it was too late for that as he was already in the grips of the debilitating disease. He ticked all the boxes - sudden onset of acute fever, chills, profuse sweating, cough, severe headache, muscle pains and weakness.
"It was around July or August 2009 when I just got terribly sick,' Graeme said.
"I was really, really sick with the fever and the shakes. I felt like I was going to die. One moment I was cold, one moment I was hot.
"My doctor checked me over and took some blood tests to find out what was wrong with me."
When the results returned, they showed Graeme was suffering from a combination of Q Fever and Brucellosis which is a zoonotic infection caused by the bacterial genus Brucella.
Graeme's doctor told him he had actually contracted Brucellosis previously and the Q Fever had essentially 'reinfected' him.
He is one of a high number of Central and North Queensland and Whitsundays residents to have contracted Q Fever between 2004-2014 with new research revealing Mackay Hospital and Health Service has some of the highest rates of Q Fever notifications in the country.
A two year study conducted by then-fifth year James Cook University medical students Pirathaban Sivabalan and Apoorva Saboo under the guidance of Dr Robert Norton and Dr James Yew found Proserpine and the Whitsunday region in particular were hotspots for the illness.
Researcher Dr Apoorva Saboo, who is now the Surgical Principal House Officer at Mackay Base Hospital said Q Fever rates in Proserpine were 26 times higher than the national average while rates in the Whitsundays region were nine times higher than the average.
"It's a significant difference," Dr Saboo said.
"We found that for every 100,000 persons 42 people had been diagnosed with Q fever in Proserpine and 14.8 in the Whitsunday region."
While the main aim of the study was to investigate exposure risk factors, in particular the effect of wildlife and rainfall on the prevalence of Q Fever, the secondary aims were to identify occupational, social and lifestyle factors that may increase the risk and to examine the geographical distribution of the disease in the region.
Research lead and Director of Microbiology and Pathology at Townsville Hospital Dr Robert Norton said Q Fever was an important infectious disease that has in the past been strongly associated with the abattoir and cattle industries.
"Over the last 10 years there has been an increased awareness that this may not be the only occupation to be at risk in our region," Dr Norton said.
"Our study looked at over 60 cases of Q Fever in and around Mackay HHS to determine what risk factors were involved.
"We found that exposure and direct contact with native mammals such as wallabies was a significant risk factor.
"We also found a direct association between rainfall and cases with majority of cases diagnosed in Summer and Autumn."
The view that Q Fever is only passed on from cattle and other livestock is one Graeme admits to believing.
While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how he contracted the disease, Graeme put it down to delivering a calf in the rain a short time before he fell ill.
After being informed the disease can also be passed on from native mammals, Graeme was second guessing his conclusion.
"That's sort of what I blamed it on but whether it was or wasn't, I really don't know. It's just fairly coincidental," he said.
"I just related it to the cow but it might not have had anything to do with that. All I know is I definitely don't want it again."
The research project, supported by Mackay Base Hospital and James Cook University, has led to findings relevant both locally and rest of Australia, particularly in travel medicine and infectious diseases.
With a high incidence of Q Fever and being an integral area for wildlife in Queensland, the research team believes Mackay HHS is an ideal study location to further evaluate exposure risk factors for Q Fever.
While their retrospective study has its limitations it has built a good foundation for further prospective studies.