High prevalence of Rickettsia helvetica in wild small mammal populations in Germany
Since the beginning of the 21st century, spotted fever rickettsioses are known as emerging diseases worldwide. Rickettsiae are obligately intracellular bacteria transmitted by arthropod vectors. The ecology of Rickettsia species has not been investigated in detail, but small mammals are considered to play a role as reservoirs. Aim of this study was to monitor rickettsiae in wild small mammals over a period of five years in four federal states of Germany. Initial screening of ear pinna tissues of 3939 animals by Pan-Rick real-time PCR targeting the citrate synthase (gltA) gene revealed 296 rodents of seven species and 19 shrews of two species positive for rickettsial DNA. Outer membrane protein gene (ompB, ompAIV) PCRs based typing resulted in the identification of three species: Rickettsia helvetica (90.9%) was found as the dominantly occurring species in the four investigated federal states, but Rickettsia felis (7.8%) and Rickettsia raoultii (1.3%) were also detected. The prevalence of Rickettsia spp. in rodents of the genus Apodemus was found to be higher (approximately 14%) than in all other rodent and shrew species at all investigated sites. General linear mixed model analyses indicated that heavier (older) individuals of yellow-necked mice and male common voles seem to contain more often rickettsial DNA than younger ones. Furthermore, rodents generally collected in forests in summer and autumn more often carried rickettsial DNA. In conclusion, this study indicated a high prevalence of R. helvetica in small mammal populations and suggests an age-dependent increase of the DNA prevalence in some of the species and in animals originating from forest habitats. The finding of R. helvetica and R. felis DNA in multiple small mammal species may indicate frequent trans-species transmission by feeding of vectors on different species. Further investigations should target the reason for the discrepancy between the high rickettsial DNA prevalence in rodents and the so far almost absence of clinical apparent human infections.