The natural history of acute Q fever: a prospective Australian cohort

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Background: A detailed description of the natural history of acute Q fever, caused by infection with Coxiella burnetii,

Aim: To significantly increase understanding of the illness.

Design: Subjects with provisional acute Q fever (n = 115) were recruited from primary care in rural Australia, and followed prospectively by interview and blood collection including for serological confirmation. A nested series of subjects with prolonged illness (cases), and those without (controls), were investigated in detail.

Methods: Total phase I and phase II anti-C. burnetii antibodies were detected by complement fixation test; and IgG, IgM and IgA phase I and phase II titres by immunofluorescence. Flow cytometric analysis was conducted to enumerate circulating T cells subsets, B cells, monocytes and natural killer cells.

Results: Serological testing confirmed acute Q fever in 73 subjects (63%). The acute illness featured fever, headache, sweats, fatigue and anorexia; and varied widely in severity, causing an average of 8 days in bed and 15 days out of work or other role in the first month of illness. The illness course varied from 2 days to greater than a year. No cases of chronic, localized Q fever infection, such as endocarditis, were identified. Neither severe nor prolonged illness were associated with persistence of C. burnetii DNA, altered patterns of C. burnetii-specific IgG, IgM or IgA antibody production, or altered leucocyte subsets.

Conclusions: The severity of acute Q fever alone predicted prolonged duration. Further studies are warranted to better understand the pathophysiology of prolonged illness after acute Q fever.

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