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Detection of tick-borne encephalitis virus in ear tissue and dried blood spots from naturally infected wild rodents.

Parasites & Vectors 2023 March 17
BACKGROUND: Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) can cause severe neurological disease in humans. Its geographical distribution is expanding in Western Europe with unresolved causes and spatial patterns, necessitating enhanced surveillance. Monitoring the virus in the environment is complicated, as it usually relies on destructive sampling of small rodents to test organs for TBEV, which in addition to ethical considerations also raises issues for long-term monitoring or longitudinal studies. Moreover, even when the virus is not detected in the blood or organs of the rodent, TBEV can still be transmitted from an infected tick to uninfected ticks feeding nearby. This is due to the ability of TBEV to replicate and migrate locally within the epidermis of small mammals, including those that do not appear to have systemic infection. This suggests that the virus may be detectable in skin biopsies, which has been confirmed in experimentally infected laboratory rodents, but it remains unknown if this sample type may be a viable alternative to destructively obtained samples in the monitoring of natural TBEV infection. Here we test ear tissue and dried blood spot (DBS) samples from rodents to determine whether TBEV-RNA can be detected in biological samples obtained non-destructively.

METHODS: Rodents were live-trapped and sampled at three woodland areas in The Netherlands where presence of TBEV has previously been recorded. Ear tissue (n = 79) and DBSs (n = 112) were collected from a total of 117 individuals and were tested for TBEV-RNA by real-time RT-PCR.

RESULTS: TBEV-RNA was detected in five rodents (4.3% of tested individuals), all of which had a TBEV-positive ear sample, while only two out of four of these individuals (for which a DBS was available) had a positive DBS. This equated to 6.3% of ear samples and 1.8% of DBSs testing positive for TBEV-RNA.

CONCLUSIONS: We provide the first evidence to our knowledge that TBEV-RNA can be detected in samples obtained non-destructively from naturally infected wild rodents, providing a viable sampling alternative suitable for longitudinal surveillance of the virus.

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