Five people in the Moses Lake area have been sickened, though not seriously, by what health officials suspect is a rare livestock-related bacterial infection called Q fever.
The infections have sparked a multiagency investigation by federal, state and local health and agricultural officials, who have now traced infected goats purchased from or bred at the quarantined farms in Grant County to nine other Washington counties, including Spokane County.
Officials also traced infected goats to Cascade and Teton counties in Montana, where another six people have been stricken with what is probably Q fever.
“We have established a direct link to the herd in Montana,” said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Agriculture.
The situation began unfolding in April when goats at a Moses Lake farm had birthing problems. Testing overseen by the state Agriculture Department determined that the goats were infected with the bacteria that causes Q fever, Kelly said.
Then, in May, people associated with the goat farms fell ill.
Such bacterial infections are common among goat, sheep and cattle herds. Kelly noted a national study that found that at times 90 percent of dairy herds can carry the bacteria.
Human cases of Q fever, however, are rare. In Washington state between zero and three cases of Q fever are confirmed each year, said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Health.
Investigators are trying to determine if the uptick in reportable cases is due to awareness of Q fever or something different.
Human health investigators are “trying to figure this out,” Kelly said.
People can become ill with the bacteria if they inhale barnyard dust particles contaminated by infected animals, according to information provided by the Mayo Clinic.
People can suffer flulike symptoms and develop pneumonia or hepatitis, Moyer said. High fever, headaches, malaise, abdominal pain, chills, muscle pain, chest pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can be caused by the bacteria. Health officials have asked people with these symptoms who have worked around goats or other livestock to get tested. The disease is treated with the antibiotic doxycycline.
Left untreated, serious cases of Q fever can lead to chronic illness that may affect a person’s heart, liver, brain and lungs and may be fatal.
Moyer said the most vulnerable people are pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic illness or weakened immune systems.
The infected goats are reportedly used in shows and possibly for meat. Though they are not milking goats, agriculture officials have increased testing at facilities that handle and bottle unpasteurized goat milk as a precaution.