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Leishmania infantum in wild animals in endemic areas of southern Italy.

Abstract

Leishmania infantum infection in wildlife is increasingly reported in Europe, but scant data are available in Italy so far. This study aimed to investigate the circulation of L. infantum among sylvatic hosts in Sicily (southern Italy), a highly endemic area for canine leishmaniosis, through serological and molecular tools. Target tissues (skin, spleen, lymph nodes) collected from 71 European rabbits, 2 European hares, 7 red foxes, 11 European wildcats and 1 pine marten, were qPCR analysed for the detection of L. infantum DNA. Additionally, 40 rabbits, older than one year, were serologically screened for specific anti-Leishmania antibodies. Leishmania infantum was molecularly diagnosed in 5.4% (n = 5) of the examined animals (3/71 European rabbits, 2/7 red foxes). In many of the qPCR positive animals (4/5), the parasite DNA was more prevalent in visceral than cutaneous tissues. None of the positive animal showed signs of disease and/or macroscopic alterations of organs; low parasitic burden in all positive tissue samples was also recorded. Only one rabbit serum (i.e., 2.5%) tested positive for anti-Leishmania antibodies. The seropositive rabbit was in good health status and no amastigotes were observed in lymph-node aspirate and blood smears. This study provides first evidence of L. infantum infection in wild animals from Sicily (southern Italy). Despite the low prevalence of infection here reported, the circulation of the Leishmania in wild reservoirs in Sicily remains worthy of future investigations for a better understanding of their role in the epidemiology of the disease as well as to fine-tune control strategies in the area.

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