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Higher Prevalence of Babesia microti than Borrelia burgdorferi in Small Mammal Species in Central Pennsylvania, United States

Rocco, Joseph M., Regan, Kevin M., Larkin, Jeffery L., Eichelberger, Charlie, Wisgo, Joseph, Nealen, Paul M., Irani, Vida R.
Vector borne and zoonotic diseases 2020 v.20 no.2 pp. 151-154
Babesia microti, Borrelia burgdorferi, Ixodes, Lyme disease, Myodes gapperi, Peromyscus leucopus, babesiosis, geographical distribution, hosts, human diseases, humans, notifiable disease, pathogens, risk, small mammals, ticks, Pennsylvania
Babesia microti can lead to severe babesiosis in immunosuppressed populations, but due to high numbers of asymptomatic cases, clinical reporting is unable to define its geographic distribution. Although Lyme disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi is endemic throughout Pennsylvania (PA), human babesiosis is under recognized, despite sharing the same vector and primary reservoir host. Ixodes ticks are known to carry B. microti throughout PA, but information about pathogen prevalence in small mammal reservoirs remains limited. Characterizing B. microti prevalence in these small mammals can elucidate mechanisms of pathogen spread and define geographic areas where humans are at risk of infection. We tested 692 small mammals across eight contiguous counties in central PA for molecular evidence of B. microti and B. burgdorferi. In total, six different small mammal species were collected. The overall prevalence of B. microti was 32% with similar rates observed across all counties. Surprisingly, this was higher than the prevalence of B. burgdorferi at 21%. In fact, high rates of B. microti were found in all six species, and both pathogens were identified in 11% of mammals tested. The prevalence of B. microti was highest in Myodes gapperi (southern red-backed vole) at 39% despite Peromyscus leucopus (white-footed mouse) being considered the primary reservoir host for B. microti. In conclusion, B. microti has a high prevalence across multiple small mammal species throughout central PA. This prevalence is greater than B. burgdorferi despite a much higher incidence of Lyme disease compared to babesiosis in PA. Although it remains unknown how the prevalence of B. microti in small mammal hosts corresponds to human infection rates, the high pathogen prevalence of B. microti suggests that it is an emerging pathogen in this area. Currently, babesiosis is not a reportable disease in PA, and additional studies are warranted to evaluate its clinical significance in this geographic region.