|Date: 9 Sep 2011
Source: Alaska Dispatch [edited]
A discovery last year  that northern fur seals on St. Paul
Island were carrying _Coxiella burnetti_, a bacteria that can cause
illness, has motivated scientists to do more sleuthing. Can the
bacteria cause seals and other marine mammals to get sick? Were
villagers ever exposed to it, and if so, did they become ill?
The infection, known as Q Fever, can cause a varying mix of flu-like
symptoms, including a high fever, according to the Centers for Disease
Alaska has documented only one case of the bacteria making an Alaskan
sick, and that person picked it up overseas, according a bulletin
issued 7 Sep  by the Alaska Department of Epidemiology in
response to findings by Colorado State University researchers. But
that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other cases, since Alaska didn’t
begin to collect data on human _Coxiella_ infections until 2007.
_Coxiella burnetti_ is more generally known to occur in land animals
and birds. In Alaska, caribou, muskoxen, mountain goats, Dall sheep,
wolves, and grizzly bears have been tested for the bacteria, with
caribou discovered as the largest carrier. Although the bacteria are
present among this wildlife, there is no evidence the bacteria has
made any of the wildlife sick, according to the bulletin. The CSU
study, combined with recent occurrences of human illness in places
like the state of Washington, Greenland and the Netherlands, has the
science community taking a new look at the disease.
There is a long list of known facts about Q Fever. It’s been around a
long time. It’s found just about everywhere, including places you
might expect, like near animals, and those that might surprise you,
like schools, retail stores and banks. It’s hard to kill. It travels
easily on dust particles and is found in animal placentas, milk and
feces, and because it could feasibly be used in an aerosol to spray
over a wide area, it’s considered a potential bioterrorism agent, one
that won’t kill people but which could debilitate large numbers of
them by making them sick.
Louis Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state of Alaska who
helped author the Q Fever bulletin, describes the bacteria as a
“ubiquitous organism” that’s found not just in animals but also in
oceans, sediments, and other places in the environment. Of interest is
that while it is present in a wide variety of places, the numbers of
people who get sick from it aren’t huge, she said.
Data from the CDC illustrates how unusual the illness is in people in
the United States. The CDC has never received more than 200 reports of
it in a given year. Yet common flu can strike between 5 to 20 percent
of the U.S. population each year, anywhere from 15 to 62 million
Historically, people have not routinely looked for _Coxiella burnetti_
in marine mammals, which makes the current findings difficult to place
into context. Has the bacteria always been around in marine mammal
populations but just hasn’t been noticed? Or, is it just starting to
affect species that had previously been unexposed or unaffected? And,
does it have the potential to make sea life or the humans that come
into contact with it sick? The answers aren’t known.
To learn more, CSU has returned to the Pribilof Islands to study the
bacteria’s effect on fur seals in more depth. Scientists also want to
find out whether _Coxiella_ is present in Stellar sea lions, ice
seals, walrus and other animals and birds from the area.
Previous blood samples collected from villagers of St. Paul and St.
George Islands in the 1980s and 1990s will also be tested for
_Coxiella burnetti_ antibodies.
Ultimately, scientists want to know how widespread _Coxiella_ is among
Alaska’s marine life, how long it’s been around, whether it’s made
people sick in the past, and how to prevent it in the future.
[Byline: Jill Burke <email@example.com>]