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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Apr 18;103(16):6236-41. Epub 2006 Apr 7.

Classic flea-borne transmission does not drive plague epizootics in prairie dogs.

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Department of Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.


We lack a clear understanding of the enzootic maintenance of the bacterium (Yersinia pestis) that causes plague and the sporadic epizootics that occur in its natural rodent hosts. A key to elucidating these epidemiological dynamics is determining the dominant transmission routes of plague. Plague can be acquired from the bites of infectious fleas (which is generally considered to occur via a blocked flea vector), inhalation of infectious respiratory droplets, or contact with a short-term infectious reservoir. We present results from a plague modeling approach that includes transmission from all three sources of infection simultaneously and uses sensitivity analysis to determine their relative importance. Our model is completely parameterized by using data from the literature and our own field studies of plague in the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Results of the model are qualitatively and quantitatively consistent with independent data from our field sites. Although infectious fleas might be an important source of infection and transmission via blocked fleas is a dominant paradigm in the literature, our model clearly predicts that this form of transmission cannot drive epizootics in prairie dogs. Rather, a short-term reservoir is required for epizootic dynamics. Several short-term reservoirs have the potential to affect the prairie dog system. Our model predictions of the residence time of the short-term reservoir suggest that other small mammals, infectious prairie dog carcasses, fleas that transmit plague without blockage of the digestive tract, or some combination of these three are the most likely of the candidate infectious reservoirs.

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