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Opossums and Cat Fleas: New Insights in the Ecology of Murine Typhus in Galveston, Texas

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  • 1 Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.
  • | 2 School of Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.
  • | 3 Galveston Police Department Animal Services Unit, Galveston, Texas.
  • | 4 Department of Pathology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.

Murine typhus is an acute undifferentiated febrile illness caused by Rickettsia typhi. The classic reservoir (Rattus spp.) and flea vector (Xenopsylla cheopis) were once culprits of murine typhus in the United States. Vector and rodent control efforts have drastically decreased the prevalence of disease, except in a few endemic foci where opossums and cat fleas play a role in transmission. Since 2012, there has been a reemergence of murine typhus in Galveston, TX. We hypothesize that opossums and cat fleas are involved in the transmission of R. typhi in Galveston. To explore this, we sought to find the seroprevalence of typhus group antibodies from opossums. We also sought to find the prevalence of R. typhi in fleas parasitizing these animals. We collected blood from 12 opossums and found that eight (66.7%) had the presence of anti-R. typhi antibodies. All opossums were infested with fleas; a total of 250 Ctenocephalides felis fleas were collected from these animals. Seven opossums (53.8%) were infested with fleas that had molecular evidence of R. typhi infection, while six (46.2%) were infested with fleas that contained Candidatus Rickettsia senegalensis, an organism closely related to R. felis. The minimum flea infection rate for R. typhi was 7.0%. The minimum infection rate for Candidatus R. senegalensis was 6.1%. Our study demonstrates that fleas infected with R. typhi parasitize opossums in Galveston. It is therefore likely that opossums and their fleas play a role in the city's recent reemergence of murine typhus.

Author Notes

* Address correspondence to Lucas S. Blanton, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, 301 University Boulevard, Galveston, TX 77555-0435. E-mail: lsblanto@utmb.edu

Financial support: This work was supported by the Carnage and Martha Walls Distinguished University Chair in Tropical Diseases Endowment.

Authors' addresses: Lucas S. Blanton, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, E-mail: lsblanto@utmb.edu. Boluwatife M. Idowu and Tyler N. Tatsch, School of Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, E-mails: mbidowu@utmb.edu and tntatsch@utmb.edu. Joshua M. Henderson, Galveston Police Department Animal Services Unit, Galveston, TX, E-mail: jhenderson@cityofgalveston.org. Donald H. Bouyer and David H. Walker, Department of Pathology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, E-mails: dobouyer@utmb.edu and dwalker@utmb.edu.

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