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Every year hundreds of people contract Q fever in Australia. A zoonotic disease transmitted predominantly from cattle, sheep and goats to humans, it is caused by the bacterium Coxiella Burnetii, released into the environment through faeces, urine, milk, and birth products from infected animals.
In humans, the bacterium causes severe disease. About half of the people exposed to it experience flu-like symptoms, with 40% of them requiring hospital care. Q fever can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic heart conditions, chronic hepatitis, and in children, it can cause bone marrow necrosis - a disease that affects the normal growth of the bone. Some infected people die.
The good news is that - being a bacterium - if you get diagnosed, you can be treated with antibiotics and usually have good outcomes
“The flip side is that because Q fever manifests as a flu-like illness in most cases, it is often mistaken for a viral infection. “By the time it is diagnosed, it's too late, and you've gone into the chronic forms.”
Australia is the only country where a Q fever vaccine is available to those working in the livestock industry. But unvaccinated people living in neighbouring areas can breathe in contaminated dust carried away from the farm by the wind.
The bacterial infection does not manifest with symptoms in livestock, explains Bosward. But scientific evidence is increasingly showing that Q fever can cause a spate of abortions and impact reproductive capacity and milk production. “It's not just a public health concern, and it could be costing farmers more than they realise,” says Bosward. Ideally, she says, a vaccine for the animals would solve both problems.
In Europe, a vaccine for livestock is available, but it is produced in a factory where other live vaccines for diseases not present in Australia are manufactured. That poses a risk of those diseases escaping into our environment. “We would have to produce our own vaccine,” Bosward says.
That is why she has joined forces with the Australian livestock industry to understand the real impact Q fever has on farmers’ businesses and find scientific grounds to back the domestic manufacturing of a vaccine for the animals.
“The main aim of this collaboration is to work out the impact Q fever has on production and whether a vaccine would be a financially viable option,” Bosward says. “That would give the industry more justification to fight for more funding to produce the vaccine.”
Meat and Livestock Australia is funding the project through a matching grant system with the Australian Government. “This way, it’s a partnership rather than them just funding it.”
Working with the industry means Bosward has direct access to farms and animals that might be infected with the pathogen. She can collect and study samples from a real-world setting. “It's a good use of my time because I'm helping make the world a better place by dealing with real problems.”
In return, she says, the industry benefits from her decade-long research experience on various species and her international connections. “The experience and knowledge of the industry and access to farms are combined with my knowledge of the pathogen. You get all the experts working together to solve the problem, rather than one person in a lab,” says Bosward. “It's important to have everybody's point of view.”
While it remains crucial that blue skies research, free from any pressure from industry outcome, continues to be funded, Bosward says, “you want a fair portion of your research to be solving real-world problems.”
“There is a place for discovery projects - that's how many of the original ideas come. And there is a place for partnerships with industry. They have funding and specific drivers. And they bring it all back into the real world.