BERNARD, Iowa – Dairy farmers, their family and employees are eight times more likely than the average person to get sick from bacteria or parasites naturally found in livestock, according to a study recently completed by the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Our study looked at diseases that are usually thought of as something you get from food or water, but are also diseases people and animals can share. There hasn’t been much research done on how common these diseases are among farmers and their families, so we think they are largely under-recognized in this population,” said Carrie Klumb, epidemiologist and project coordinator for MDH’s Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health project.
Five years’ worth of data were collected on reports of Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium parvum, E. coli and Salmonella in Minnesota. These are zoonotic diseases, meaning they can easily be transferred from animals to humans.
“Our biggest concern is that cattle and other livestock naturally carry these germs,” Klumb said. “These germs don’t make animals sick, but can make us sick. That’s why we care so much about this topic.”
Of the cases reported, 23 percent were exposed to food animals prior to signs of illness, and 61 percent of those lived or worked on a farm, said Klumb.
“Really, a majority of people who were infected lived on, worked on or visited a farm,” she said.
While the study is specific to Minnesota, Iowa dairy farmer Mark Hosch knows all too well the dangers of zoonotic diseases. Last spring, he was diagnosed with Q fever, which is an infection caused by Coxiella burnetii bacteria found in cattle, sheep and goats.
Now, Hosch is on 18-months’ worth of antibiotics.
“This has been a learning experience with the luck of the draw,” said Hosch of his rare diagnosis. “I didn’t know any better and there’s nothing I could’ve done differently.”
It is believed Hosch was infected with the bacteria while helping in the maternity pen on his 150-cow dairy in Jones County near Bernard, Iowa.
A few years ago, Hosch noticed his lack of endurance and more frequent aches and pains. The symptoms continued, so he was tested for Lyme disease.
“The test came back negative and the doctor thought I was just getting older,” Hosch, 58, said. “I couldn’t argue with him.”
Then, in April 2018, Hosch noticed two of his fingers became swollen and turned purple. The night prior he had acute pain and flu-like symptoms.
“The doctor came in and looked, then took a second look before sending me to the ER,” Hosch said. “They all had gowns and facemasks on and were getting ready to pull tests. I asked the infectious disease doctor if it could be Q fever.”
In February 2018, Hosch’s daughter, Skylar, was tested for the disease as part of requirements for a job. She tested positive for exposure.
However, Hosch’s condition was much worse. He was diagnosed with chronic Q fever, which had already begun slowly damaging his heart valves.
“It’s funky,” he said. “I’m not supposed to have this. There’s one in 1,000 chance of getting Q fever and one in 1 million chance of having chronic Q fever.”
Since being diagnosed, Hosch’s daughter has returned home to help with chores while her father recovers.  
“The worse-case scenario was that I die,” Hosch said. “The second worse was that I’d have to come in twice a day for an IV. So, instead I take pills three times a day.”
While Hosch still has about nine months left of treatment, he is confident his condition is becoming less severe. His joint pain is clearing and his energy is returning. Routine medical tests also show his arteries are clear and functioning well.
“I’m feeling better than I was six months ago,” Hosch said. “I continue farming and get stronger every day.”
In the realm of zoonotic diseases, Q fever is extremely rare. However, in Australia, humans – especially those working with ruminant animals – are vaccinated for the disease.
The challenge with zoonotic diseases is that unless they pose a danger to public health, they are rarely reported to state organizations. For example, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health does not closely track the diseases Klumb’s study oversaw, but does have a strict protocol if Bovine TB or brucellosis – also known as Bangs disease – were to ever appear.
“We haven’t found either (TB or brucellosis) in Minnesota in many years, but testing is still done to protect Minnesota’s cattle and the farmers that care for them,” said Dr. Stacey Schwabenlander, Minnesota BOAH.
Dairy farmers and those around cattle regularly should take precautions to mitigate the risk of contracting any type of zoonotic disease and seek treatment when necessary.
“First, it’s important to be aware that these germs are normal and don’t indicate poor animal care. This is inherently a part of raising animals,” Klumb said. “Because of this, we can never eliminate the risks, but we can minimize the risks.”
While most are harmless to animals, there are some diseases that cause illness to both animals and humans.  
One distinguishable zoonotic disease is rabies, where the central nervous system is compromised. Cattle may bellow abnormally, have difficulty walking, drool excessively or show aggression, said Schwabenlander.
“Dairy farmers should be vigilant with their animal care and take note of anything abnormal, even if it’s just going off feed. Each disease is different,” said Schwabenlander of the diseases Minnesota BOAH monitors, like rabies. “Keep your vet on speed dial.”
In animal care, farmers should maintain high standards of biosecurity – creating housing environments that promote good hygiene and using equipment in a way that prevents the spread of diseases from animal to animal or animal to humans.
“It really comes down to good biosecurity and good husbandry,” Schwabenlander said regarding the diseases Minnesota BOAH is involved with.
Those interacting with livestock should wash their hands before doing any sort of hand-to-mouth activity, and change out of barn clothes and shoes before entering the main part of the house to reduce their chances of getting sick.
Those most at risk for developing a disease are children under 5 because their immune systems are not fully developed, said Klumb.
“We know it’s pretty realistic that you’re going to milk the cows with your kids around. Try to keep them in a clean playpen and keep their bottles covered or keep the bottles out of the barn altogether. Also, they really shouldn’t be doing much for chores either,” Klumb said. “I know we sound like we don’t want people to have fun, but we just want people to be safe. We know being on the farm is a wonderful way to grow up and kids so learn so much, but there’s a lot of time for that. When they’re that young, we need to keep them safe and healthy.”
With Hosch’s experience, contracting Q fever was likely inevitable, but he now shares his story in an effort for the dairying community to be aware of the underlying health risks of farming and precautions to take when working with animals.