Q fever is a zoonotic disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. Humans are commonly exposed via inhalation of aerosolized bacteria derived from the waste products of domesticated sheep and goats, and particularly from products generated during parturition. However, many other species can be infected with C. burnetii, and the host range and full zoonotic potential of C. burnetii is unknown. Two cases of C. burnetii infection in marine mammal placenta have been reported, but it is not known if this infection is common in marine mammals. To address this issue, placenta samples were collected from Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardsi), harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), and Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). Coxiella burnetii was detected by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in the placentas of Pacific harbor seals (17/27), harbor porpoises (2/6), and Steller sea lions (1/2) collected in the Pacific Northwest. A serosurvey of 215 Pacific harbor seals sampled in inland and outer coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest showed that 34.0% (73/215) had antibodies against either Phase 1 or Phase 2 C. burnetii. These results suggest that C. burnetii infection is common among marine mammals in this region.
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Vol. 48 • No. 1