Q-Fever in Alaskan Seals?

Date: 9 Sep 2011

Source: Alaska Dispatch [edited]


A discovery last year [2010] 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 [2011] 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 <jill@alaskadispatch.com>]

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