Font Size

Biological Warfare (cont.)

Q Fever

Q fever is a disease that also affects animals and humans. It is caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. A spore-like form of the organism is extremely resistant to heat, pressure, and many cleaning solutions. This allows the germs to live in the environment for long periods under harsh conditions. In contrast, the disease it causes in humans is usually not harmful, although it can be temporarily disabling. Even without treatment, most people recover.

The organism is extremely infectious. The potential of the organism as a biological warfare agent is related directly to its ability to infect people easily. A single organism is capable of producing infection and disease in humans. Different strains have been identified worldwide.

  • Humans have been infected most commonly by contact with domestic livestock, particularly goats, cattle, and sheep. The risk of infection is increased greatly if humans are exposed while these animals are giving birth to young. Large numbers of the germs may be released into the air as an animal gives birth. Survival of the organism on surfaces, such as straw, hay, or clothing, allows for transmission to other people who are not in direct contact with infected animals.
  • People can become infected by breathing the organisms.

Signs and Symptoms

Humans are the only hosts that commonly develop an illness as a result of the infection. The illness may begin within 10-40 days. There is no typical pattern of symptoms, and some people show none at all. Most people appear mildly to moderately ill.

Fever (can go up and down and last up to 13 days), chills, and headache are the most common signs and symptoms. Sweating, aches, fatigue, and loss of appetite are also common. Cough often occurs later in the illness. Chest pain occurs in a few people. Sometimes there is a rash. Other symptoms such as headache, facial pain, and hallucinations have been reported.

Sometimes problems in the lungs are seen on chest X-rays. And some people may seem to have acute hepatitis because of their liver involvement. Others may develop a heart condition called endocarditis.


Blood tests may help in making the diagnosis of Q fever.


The drug of choice for treatment of Q fever is doxycycline. There are several alternative antibiotic options that may be preferred under different circumstances.

People with chronic Q fever who develop endocarditis may die, even with appropriate treatment.


Although an effective vaccine (Q-Vax) is licensed in Australia, all Q fever vaccines used in the United States are under study. Q fever can be prevented by immunization.

Postexposure Prophylaxis

In the case of bioterror attack, postexposure prophylaxis is recommended using oral doxycycline.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/30/2016

Must Read Articles Related to Biological Warfare

Anthrax Anthrax is described in the early literature of the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus. The fifth learn more >>
Brucellosis Brucellosis is an infectious disease caused by the Brucella bacteria. Symptoms and signs include sweating, fever, fatigue, dizziness, headache, cough, ch...learn more >>

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

CBRNE - Biological Warfare Agents »

Biological weapons include any organism or toxin found in nature that can be used to incapacitate, kill, or otherwise impede an adversary.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

Medical Dictionary