The Netherlands is grappling with an outbreak of a rare disease. It normally strikes farm animals, but it’s now sickening hundreds of people who
have no contact with farms. While most people get something like the flu or pneumonia for a few weeks, some are sick for months, and a handful have
died. The disease is caused by a type of bacteria so resilient that the U.S. government considers it a bioterrorism agent. From the Netherlands, Emily
Kopp reports. (images courtesy of VJ Movement)
Truck driver Frank van Lent lives in a small town an hour southeast of Amsterdam. He used to play tennis and jog, but now a short stroll through his
neighborhood is all he has energy for. His trouble began ten months ago.
Frank Van Lent and his partner Ans Brouwers
He became exhausted, he says. He developed a fever, headaches, muscle aches, heart palpitations. At first, his doctor was stumped. He prescribed
antibiotics, but those didn’t help. Two months went by, but van Lent didn’t get better. He went in for more tests. They took some blood, he says,
and they came up with a diagnosis: Q-fever. It’s a bacterial infection, transmitted by livestock. Jos van de Sande is an infectious disease expert
at the public health department here in the Dutch province of Brabant. He says, usually, only people who work with farm animals are at risk.
“It’s always been an occupational disease of farmers, slaughterhouse personnel, veterinarians.”
But something has changed. Now, many people here who have no connection to farms are coming down with Q-fever, and the number of patients is growing.
Three years ago, the Netherlands had fewer than 200 cases. Last year, it had more than 2000. At least nine people have died. It’s not clear why the
disease is spreading. Jos van de Sande says the bacteria may have mutated.
”And now Q fever is spread by the wind and the whole population can get it.”
Whatever is causing the disease to spread, officials believe they know where it’s coming from – this country’s growing number of goat farms.
Jeannette van den Ven raises dairy goats on her farm:
“These are the younger stock, and the younger females and males.”
For the goats to make milk, they have to get pregnant. The problem is: the bacteria that cause Q fever thrive in goats’ wombs, and cause goats to
miscarry. When the goats abort, the bacteria are released into the air and can infect people. So to stop the disease, the Dutch government has
targeted farms, like van den Ven’s.
“They just said pregnant goats give the most risk to contamination. Let’s kill all the pregnant goats, contaminated or not. And that’s, you
know, very hard.”
Under government orders, if any goat tests positive for Q fever, all pregnant goats on that farm must be killed. That’s what happened here. The
government sent veterinarians to euthanize more than 600 of Van den Ven’s goats. Nationwide, about 45,000 pregnant goats have been killed.
Farmer Jeannette van den Ven
Farmers call these measures draconian and unnecessary. There is an animal vaccine for Q-fever. It was in short supply last year but now there’s now
enough for all the goats in the country. It’s not clear, though, if any of these measures will stop the spread of Q fever. Jos Van de Sande of the
Brabant public health department says there are simply too many farms squeezed into this crowded country.
He pulls up a map on his computer. It’s dotted with fat pink circles, clumped together like chicken pox. They indicate infected farms.
“You see, Not only humans, but other stables nearby can become infected very easily. The stables are so close together in the Netherlands that
the disease can very likely spread from stable to stable.”
One way to protect people from Q fever would be to move farms away from cities, but experts say that’s not practical. Meanwhile, other European
countries are watching the situation closely. Recently, the disease spread to a few Belgian farms across the border.
For The World, I’m Emily Kopp, Brabant Province, the Netherlands.
Move over swine flue,it's about time the zombie Apocalypse begins.
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