Droplet digital PCR as a sensitive tool to assess exposure pressure from Echinococcus multilocularis in intermediate hosts
A key element to understanding parasite epidemiology is assessing their prevalence in the respective wild reservoir hosts. The tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis circulates between canid species (definite hosts) and small mammals (mostly rodents; intermediate hosts). Prevalence rates of Echinococcus multilocularis in the intermediate host are most exclusively determined through macroscopic examination of the liver generally followed by molecular or histological diagnostic for parasite species confirmation. The overall objective of the study was to investigate the suitability of Real-Time PCR and Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR) analysis as tool to detect exposure pressure (frequency of infection events) from E. multilocularis in intermediate hosts even in the absence of macroscopic lesions in the liver. One hundred six small mammals (meadow voles and deer mice) were trapped followed by post-mortem examination including macroscopic evaluation of the liver to detect lesions indicative of infection with Echinococcus multilocularis but also by sampling a piece of liver in absence of lesion to submit it to molecular assay. Macroscopic lesions were present in the livers of two samples. Including the latter two samples, five samples yielded a positive result following Real-Time PCR, whereas 16 samples displayed three or more positive droplets upon ddPCR and were considered positive. Whether these additional cases without macroscopic lesions would have become infectious during the lifespan of the rodent or were abortive or early infections is unclear, but these data suggest levels of exposure of intermediate hosts to the parasite is much higher than assumed.