Molecular and Serological Surveillance for Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis in Wild Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) from Scotland and Northern England

Zijie Zhou, Anouk van Hooij, Gaby N. Wassenaar , Emma Seed , Els M. Verhard-Seymonsbergen, Paul L A M Corstjens, Anna Meredith, Liam Wilson, Elspeth Milne, Katie Beckmann, Annemieke Geluk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Leprosy is a poverty-associated infectious disease in humans caused by Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis, often resulting in skin and peripheral nerve damage, which remains a significant public health concern in isolated areas of low- and middle-income countries. Previous studies reported leprosy in red squirrels in the British Isles, despite the fact that autochthonous human cases have been absent for centuries in this region. To investigate the extent of M. leprae and M. lepromatosis presence in wild red squirrels in the northern UK, we analyzed 220 blood/body cavity fluid samples from opportunistically sampled red squirrels (2004–2023) for specific antibodies against phenolic glycolipid-I, a cell wall component specific for these leprosy bacilli. Additionally, we assessed bacillus-derived DNA by real-time PCR (qPCR) in 250 pinnae from the same cohort. M. lepromatosis and M. leprae DNA were detected by qPCR in 20.4% and 0.8% of the squirrels, respectively. No cases of co-detection were observed. Detectable levels of anti-PGL-I antibodies by UCP-LFA were observed in 52.9% of animals with the presence of M. lepromatosis determined by qPCR, and overall in 15.5% of all animals. In total, 22.6% (n = 296) of this UK cohort had at least some exposure to leprosy bacilli. Our study shows that leprosy bacilli persist in red squirrels in the northern UK, emphasizing the necessity for ongoing molecular and serological monitoring to study leprosy ecology in red squirrels, gain insight into potential zoonotic transmission, and to determine whether the disease has a conservation impact on this endangered species
Original languageEnglish
Article number2005
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalAnimals
Volume14
Issue number13
Early online date7 Jul 2024
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • anti-PGL-I antibody
  • DNA
  • leprosy
  • Mycobacterium leprae
  • Mycobacterium lepromatosis
  • red squirrel
  • real-time PCR
  • UCP-LFA

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