Incompetence of Deer as Reservoirs of the Lyme Disease Spirochete

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  • Department of Tropical Public Health, Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115
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To determine whether deer may serve as reservoir hosts for the Lyme disease spirochete, we sought evidence of infection in nymphal Ixodes dammini derived from larvae that had engorged on white-tailed deer. A total of 19 deer were shot in two Lyme disease foci in Massachusetts during September 1986, the season in which larvae were most abundant. An average of 342 larval ticks of this species were collected from each deer. Of those that developed to the nymphal stage, the gut contents of 185 were examined for Borrelia burgdorferi by a direct fluorescent antibody test. Spirochetes were detected in about 1% of these nymphs, a rate of infection attributable to transovarial transmission. In contrast, infection was detected in 23% of 39 field-swept nymphal ticks of the same cohort that were collected during the following season. Although deer may be infested by numerous larval I. dammini, such ticks appear not to become infected by Lyme disease spirochetes.