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Persistence of Plague in Wild Rodents Threatens Global Mammalian Populations
New Rochelle, NY, February 24, 2010—Plague continues to circulate in rodent populations around the world. Although much is known about the bacterium responsible for past human plague pandemics, little is understood about how the bacterium is able to persist at low levels in wild rodents and their fleas, and how it affects wildlife populations and may threaten conservation of endangered species. These questions, as well as a discussion of how human activities might favor the spread of plague, are among the topics explored in a special issue of Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. The entire issue is available free online.
This special issue is a compilation of presentations delivered at an international symposium on the ecology of plague and its effects on wildlife. The symposium explored the mechanisms underlying the persistence of plague in wild rodent populations and how the bacterium is transmitted to rodents by fleas, the challenges for detecting plague in rodent hosts, and the effectiveness of plague control strategies, including an experimental vaccine. The reports also focused on the potential effects of persistent plague on wildlife biodiversity and on the risk for re-emergence and large-scale expansion of plague.
“Plague typifies the ecological, public health, and economic consequences of the modern-day spread of exotic organisms,” writes Michael F. Antolin (Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO), Dean E. Biggins (U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center, CO), and Pete Gober (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pierre, SD) in their Introduction to the issue. Because of the wealth of available knowledge, “the plague bacterium provides a model for translational research” to understand the relationship between the underlying mechanisms of the infection process and large-scale patterns of pathogen transmission and epidemiology.
Guest Editors include Drs. Antolin and Biggins, as well as Christopher J. Brand (USGS National Wildlife Health Center, Madison, WI), Jack F. Cully (Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Manhattan, KS), Laura E. Ellison (Fort Collins Science Center), Kenneth L. Gage (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fort Collins), and Tonie E. Rocke (National Wildlife Health Center, Madison, WI).
Papers by Dr. Biggins (Fort Collins Science Center) and Marc Matchett (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), et al. describe the persistence of plague in several species of highly susceptible prairie dogs and endangered black-footed ferrets in western North America, suggesting that the impact of plague on wildlife in this region had been underestimated. Flea control efforts improved prairie dog survival by 31-45% and ferret survival by 82-91%. An experimental vaccine showed promising results.
“Given the impact that plague has had on human populations throughout history, one assumes that we fully understand the disease, its ecology and transmission cycle. This is a misconception and this dedicated issue presents new knowledge and understanding of plague by leaders in the field. The issue provides an update of plague in North America and other endemic countries, describes its effect on wildlife, including endangered species, and considers how vaccines can help to control the disease,” says Stephen Higgs, PhD, FRES, Editor-in-Chief of Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, and Professor, Department of Pathology, Center for Biodefense & Emerging Infectious Diseases, Sealy Center for Vaccine Development, and WHO Collaborating Center for Tropical Diseases, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX.