THE Queensland State Government has been ordered to pay more than $1.1 million to a worker who contracted Q Fever while upgrading cattle yards at a Gold Coast high school training farm.
Carpenter Stephen Thompson, 64, was struck down with the chronic debilitating disease, brought on by a bacterial infection associated with livestock, while working on the state-owned farm in 2011.
Supreme Court judge Peter Applegarth found the government was well aware of the risk of Q fever in the environment where the man was working but did not disclose that risk to the worksite supervisor or his employer. Justice Applegarth said the evidence also suggested that his employer’s risk assessment was inadequate.
Since contracting the disease, Mr Thompson had been unable to work and remained physically and psychologically debilitated by what doctors described as classic Q fever symptoms of fatigue and ‘loss of enjoyment of life.’
He had been employed by the Queensland Police-Citizens Youth Welfare Association as a supervisor for its government-funded work-for-the-dole program since the 1990s.
In late 2011 he was supervising an upgrade of cattle yards and other infrastructure at Southport State High School’s farm in the Gold Coast hinterland.
A doctor’s assessment determined that Mr Thompson was exposed to the bacterium which caused Q fever in late 2011, leading to the onset of Q fever Debility Syndrome symptoms in early 2012. It is likely he came into contact with the bacteria from dust or soil dug up on the farm, the court heard.
Prior to contracting the illness, Mr Thompson was described as ‘physically fit’ with an ‘extraordinary work ethic’.
Justice Applegarth said Mr Thomson’s condition was now ‘parlous’, being severely debilitated by pain and chronic fatigue and chronic depression. He said Mr Thomson was now ‘a shadow of his former self’ and spent much of his time in bed or unable to move around.
Mr Thompson had sought rehabilitation but, according to medical advice, “there was no indication that either his physical or psychological condition was likely to improve substantially.”
Mr Thomson could have been given a Q Fever vaccination, which would have provided a high level of protection against the disease, Justice Applegarth said.
The court ordered the Queensland government to pay Mr Thompson $1.17 million for damages, loss of past and future earnings and expenses. The Queensland Police Citizens Youth Welfare Association was ordered to pay $240,000.
The State Government engaged private investigators to conduct surveillance on Mr Thomson, but did not find evidence that he had exaggerated the extent of his difficulties.
Q fever is an infectious disease that is spread from animals to people by a bacteria. Cattle, sheep and goats are the most common source of human infection, but other animals such as kangaroos, bandicoots, camels, dogs and cats can also cause infection.
Infected animals generally do not become ill, though miscarriage or stillbirth may occur. Widespread contamination of the environment can result from infected animals shedding the bacteria in their urine, faeces, milk and in especially high numbers in birthing products, such as the placenta. Infected ticks living on animals can also shed the bacteria and contaminate the animal’s hide, wool and fur.
People become infected with Q fever by inhaling contaminated aerosols and dust arising from:
Many people who are infected with Q fever do not become sick or may have only a mild illness, sometimes mistaken for a cold or flu. Those who become acutely ill usually develop an influenza-like illness that can be severe and may require admission to hospital. Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) is a common complication. Other complications include pneumonia, meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and inflammation of the heart. Most people make a full recovery, however it may take time to return to normal health.
Around 20pc of people with acute Q fever develop post-Q fever chronic fatigue syndrome, causing prolonged ill health and debilitating fatigue that lasts more than 12 months.
Less than 5pc of infected people develop chronic Q fever. This condition, caused by persistent infection, can result in serious health issues months or years later. It most commonly causes endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) but can also cause lesions in internal organs, tissues and bone. Conditions including heart valve disorders, impaired immunity and pregnancy increase the risk of chronic Q fever.
People who work with animals and animal products and waste are at risk of being infected with Q fever, especially new workers and visitors to animal-related industries.
Q fever vaccination is the most important way to protect workers against infection. This requires pre-vaccination screening to exclude workers who have previously been infected with or vaccinated against Q fever, as they are at increased risk for a severe vaccine reaction.