Five people are sick in the Moses Lake, Wash., area with a livestock-based illness called Q fever. You may not be familiar with the disease, which causes high fevers and flu-like symptoms in humans. But considering that Q fever is known as possibly the most infectious bacterial pathogen in the world and was once tested on humans by the U.S. Army as a possible bio-weapon, perhaps you ought to be.
The paper didn't, however, note most of the disease's more interesting aspects.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Coxiella burnetii, the bacteria that causes Q fever, is common among livestock animals like goats, sheep, and cows, where it often goes unnoticed by ranchers because most animals don't show symptoms.
The infection rate upon contact is, depending on sources, the highest of any bacteria on earth.
It's most commonly noticed in animals during the birthing process, where it often causes stillborns and other complications.
It's also while animals are giving birth that humans are apparently most at risk. "The infected animal can abort a fetus, and if a human being is assisting in process or handling birthing fluid, they can become infected," Jason Kelly, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Agriculture tells Seattle Weekly.
Additionally, people can become infected through tainted milk. That's why farms that sell unpasteurized raw milk have to be inspected regularly for the disease.
A volunteer is treated during Operation Whitecoat.
Q fever, though its symptoms among humans are often mild, was thought powerful enough by the U.S. military to test it on volunteer soldiers during the infamous Operation Whitecoat, which took place at Fort Detrick, Md., from around 1964 to 1973.
During the operation, volunteer Army soldiers could sign up to have diseases such as Q fever, yellow fever, hepatitis A, and black plague sprayed on them, injected in them, or otherwise given to them, in tests that helped develop both vaccines and treatments as well as biological weapons.
The test subjects were overwhelmingly members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members had wanted to be in the military but are religiously prohibited from carrying weapons.
According to globalsecurity.org:
The United States conducted human trials with Q Fever in the first study of Operation Whitecoat known as CD-22. Whitecoat was the name given to men who volunteered for the operation. The roughly 2,300 Whitecoats were Seventh-day Adventists who wished to serve the US military without having to carry arms, an act prohibited by their faith. The operation began at Camp Detrick, Maryland, in January 1955 as administrators used the 'Eight Ball,' a million liter aerosol dispersion chamber. In July 1955, at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, volunteers along with guinea pigs and monkeys stood in the desert night as Q Fever was released from generator sprays 3,000 feet away. The experiment succeeded as the volunteers came down with Q Fever. Volunteers who developed symptoms were treated with antibiotics. All recovered. Operation Whitecoat continued for almost two decades.
Interestingly, Q fever was among the agents like anthrax, botulism, and sarin gas found in the arsenal of members of Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo after the Tokyo subway attack of 1995.
Obviously the outbreak in Moses Lake is an isolated event and a somewhat common one at that. But the bacteria itself and the history behind it is certainly worth noting.