Challenges Posed by Tick-borne Rickettsiae: Eco-epidemiology and Public Health Implications

Marina E. Eremeeva, Georgia Southern University
Gregory A. Dasch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Rickettsiae are obligately intracellular bacteria that are transmitted to vertebrates by a variety of arthropod vectors, primarily by fleas and ticks. Once transmitted or experimentally inoculated into susceptible mammals, some rickettsiae may cause febrile illness of different morbidity and mortality, and which can manifest with different types of exhanthems in humans. However, most rickettsiae circulate in diverse sylvatic or peridomestic reservoirs without having obvious impacts on their vertebrate hosts or affecting humans. We have analyzed the key features of tick-borne maintenance of rickettsiae, which may provide a deeper basis for understanding those complex invertebrate interactions and strategies that have permitted survival and circulation of divergent rickettsiae in nature. Rickettsiae are found in association with a wide range of hard and soft ticks, which feed on very different species of large and small animals. Maintenance of rickettsiae in these vector systems is driven by both vertical and horizontal transmission strategies, but some species of Rickettsia are also known to cause detrimental effects on their arthropod vectors. Contrary to common belief, the role of vertebrate animal hosts in maintenance of rickettsiae is very incompletely understood. Some clearly play only the essential role of providing a blood meal to the tick while other hosts may supply crucial supplemental functions for effective agent transmission by the vectors. This review summarizes the importance of some recent findings with known and new vectors that afford an improved understanding of the eco-epidemiology of rickettsiae; the public health implications of that information for rickettsial diseases are also described. Special attention is paid to the co-circulation of different species and genotypes of rickettsiae within the same endemic areas and how these observations may influence, correctly or incorrectly, trends, and conclusions drawn from the surveillance of rickettsial diseases in humans.