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A new view on Lyme disease: Rodents hold the key to annual risk

In the United States, Lyme disease incidence has skyrocketed from 497 cases reported in 1982 (the first year national statistics were collected) to a record 23,763 in 2002. Lyme disease, like other zoonoses, is transmitted by a vector that picks up the pathogen during a blood meal from a vertebrate host. In the eastern and central United States, the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi infects blacklegged ticks, Ixodes scapularis, which feed on a wide variety of birds, lizards, and mammals, including mice, deer, and humans. Since human risk is a function of the prevalence of infection among vectors, outbreak prevention depends in part on understanding what controls infection rates among the agents of transmission. In a new study published in the open access journal PLoS Biology, Richard Ostfeld, Felicia Keesing, and colleagues examined the ecological determinants of Lyme disease over a 13-year period in southeastern New York, a hot zone for the disease. Combining field data with computer simulations, they analyzed trends in interannual variation and found two powerful predictors of entomological risk of Lyme disease in a given year: abundance of tick hosts--white-footed mice and chipmunks--in the previous year and abundance of acorns--which sustain the rodents--two years out. Their findings upset the long-held view that deer and climate are the best indicators of disease risk.

I. scapularis larvae hatch in midsummer and acquire infection after feeding on an infected mouse or other small animal. Larvae detach after several days of feeding, then molt into nymphs and enter a nearly year-long dormant stage. After another round of feeding, nymphs fall off and molt into adults, which prefer the blood of larger mammals. Larvae and nymphs can acquire and transmit infection, but people are most likely to contract Lyme disease from nymphs. A person's risk of exposure to Lyme disease depends on the population density of infected nymphal ticks. Many studies have
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Contact: Paul Ocampo
press@plos.org
415-624-1224
Public Library of Science
8-May-2006


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