The epidemiology of Mycobacterium bovis in wild deer and feral pigs and their roles in the establishment and spread of bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand wildlife

G Nugent, C Gortazar, G Knowles
New Zealand Veterinary Journal 2015, 63 Suppl 1: 54-67
In New Zealand, wild deer and feral pigs are assumed to be spillover hosts for Mycobacterium bovis, and so are not targeted in efforts aimed at locally eradicating bovine tuberculosis (TB) from possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), the main wildlife host. Here we review the epidemiology of TB in deer and pigs, and assess whether New Zealand's TB management programme could be undermined if these species sometimes achieve maintenance host status. In New Zealand, TB prevalences of up to 47% have been recorded in wild deer sympatric with tuberculous possums. Patterns of lesion distribution, age-specific prevalences and behavioural observations suggest that deer become infected mainly through exposure to dead or moribund possums. TB can progress rapidly in some deer (<10%), but generalised disease is uncommon in wild deer; conversely some infected animals can survive for many years. Deer-to-deer transmission of M. bovis is rare, but transmission from tuberculous deer carcasses to scavengers, including possums, is likely. That creates a small spillback risk that could persist for a decade after transmission of new infection to wild deer has been halted. Tuberculosis prevalence in New Zealand feral pigs can reach 100%. Infections in lymph nodes of the head and alimentary tract predominate, indicating that TB is mostly acquired through scavenging tuberculous carrion, particularly possums. Infection is usually well contained, and transmission between pigs is rare. Large reductions in local possum density result in gradual declines (over 10 years) in TB prevalence among sympatric wild deer, and faster declines in feral pigs. Elimination of TB from possums (and livestock) therefore results in eventual disappearance of TB from feral pigs and wild deer. However, the risk of spillback infection from deer to possums substantially extends the time needed to locally eradicate TB from all wildlife (compared to that which would be required to eradicate disease from possums alone), while dispersal or translocation of pigs (e.g. by hunters) creates a risk of long-distance spread of disease. The high rate at which pigs acquire M. bovis infection from dead possums makes them useful as sentinels for detecting TB in wildlife. It is unlikely that wild deer and feral pigs act as maintenance hosts anywhere in New Zealand, because unrestricted year-round hunting keeps densities low, with far less aggregation than on New Zealand farms. We conclude that active management of wild deer or feral pigs is not required for local TB eradication in New Zealand.

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