U of G Receives Provincial Funding to Study Puzzling Farm Disease

July 15, 2011 - News Release

University of Guelph researchers have received support from the provincial government to explore Q fever, a mysterious disease that can affect farm animals and the people who care for them.

New funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care will allow professors Paula Menzies and Andria Jones of the Department of Population Medicine to extend their research on Q fever. The disease is caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii and can infect any species, including mammals, birds and insects.

The researchers have been studying the infection in sheep and goats for the past year. They’ll use this latest $45,000 grant to test blood and survey farmers about human risk factors for contracting and spreading Q fever, such as overall health, lifestyle and time spent on a farm.

The government investment was announced today at U of G by Liz Sandals, MPP for Guelph-Wellington, on behalf of Deb Mathews, minister of health and long-term care.

“The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care recognizes that some animal diseases can cross over into the human population,” Sandals said. “This funding supports research into the risk factors for farm workers who are in contact with sheep and goats infected with Q fever.”

Kevin Hall, U of G’s vice-president (research), said: “This project illustrates the benefits of research at the intersection of human and animal health. It’s a perfect fit with our unique ‘one-health initiative,’ which considers holistically animal, human and environmental health. We’re grateful to the ministry for recognizing the importance of understanding more about this disease in order to protect animals and people.”

Menzies and Jones are working on the project with population medicine professor Scott McEwen, Jocelyn Jansen of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and master’s student Shannon Meadows.

“It’s our job as veterinarians not only to ensure optimal health of animals but also to provide guidance on how to protect caregivers against zoonotic diseases,” Menzies said.

“This will allow us to investigate beyond the effects of the infection on sheep and goats and examine how Q fever is impacting the health and well-being of farm families.”

Jones added: “This is the first time our research has directly involved human disease, and we’re very excited about it. Once we have an understanding of how much risk is associated with Q fever as well as the factors that put us at risk, we’ll be able to take a proactive stance to keep our province healthy.”

Q fever occurs most often in sheep, goats and cats, usually causing abortions and stillbirths. Farm workers usually contract the disease when caring for birthing animals. The bacteria may also occur in dust and raw milk.

The disease often goes undiagnosed in humans, with symptoms including fever, headaches and pneumonia. Most infected people have only mild symptoms, but some may need hospital care.

The researchers had randomly selected about 150 small ruminant farms throughout southern Ontario. They will test more than 4,000 animals; about half have been tested so far.

“Much more work needs to be done before proper conclusions can be drawn, but we believe that this research will give an excellent grounding in understanding the risks in order to make sound recommendations on the control of Q fever,” said Jones.

The research has also been funded by OMAFRA, the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency, the Animal Health Laboratory and Public Health Ontario.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Shiona Mackenzie, Ext. 56982, smacke03@uoguelph.ca.

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