Using a meteorological transmission model, humans and animals at risk of becoming infected with Q fever can be mapped at street level resolution. This is demonstrated by the doctoral research by Jeroen van Leuken of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM and the Institute for Risk Assessment Science (IRAS) of Utrecht University. The source of a Q fever infection (such as a contaminated farm) is considered, in addition to how the bacteria spread in the surrounding area. The transmission depends on weather conditions and environmental factors, such as the amount of vegetation and soil type.

The meteorological model could be used to forecast the spread of Q fever from farms to humans up to a few days in advance, allowing general practitioners and veterinarians to monitor high-risk areas and treat patients more rapidly. If a human infection is discovered early enough, Q fever can easily be treated using antibiotics. The results of the doctoral research may be relevant for future outbreaks of Q fever and other infectious airborne diseases, such as Legionnaires’ disease and the avian flu virus.

Furthermore, the distance from the cases’ home addresses to the source is an important risk factor for Q fever. In addition, environmental factors were correlated to Q fever incidence as well. Vegetation seems to limit the spread and thus has a protective effect. By contrast, soils that are sensitive to erosion increase the spread: bacteria on these soils might cause new contaminations away from farms and at a later stage.

This research is an important step in the development to determine public health risks of pathogens through the air, such as Q fever, using meteorological and mathematical models. Further development will mainly focus on determining accurate Q fever emission data.