Background In Europe, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the main definitive host of Echinococcus multilocularis, the aetiological agent of a severe disease in humans called alveolar echinococcosis. The distribution of this zoonotic parasite among the fox population is remarkably aggregated with few heavily infected animals harbouring much of the parasite burdens and being responsible for most of the environmental parasitic egg contamination. Important research questions explored were: (i) spatial differences in parasite infection pressure related to the level of urbanization; (ii) temporal differences in parasite infection pressure in relation to time of the year; (iii) is herd immunity or an age-dependent infection pressure responsible for the observed parasite abundance; (iv) assuming E. multilocularis infection is a clumped process, how many parasites results from a regular infection insult.
Methods By developing and comparing different transmission models we characterised the spatio-temporal variation of the infection pressure, in terms of numbers of parasites that foxes acquired after exposure per unit time, in foxes in Zurich (Switzerland). These included the variations in infection pressure with age of fox and season and the possible regulating effect of herd immunity on parasite abundance.
Results The model fitting best to the observed data supported the existence of spatial and seasonal differences in infection pressure and the absence of parasite-induced host immunity. The periodic infection pressure had different amplitudes across urbanization zones with higher peaks during autumn and winter. In addition, the model indicated the existence of variations in infection pressure among age groups in foxes from the periurban zone.
Conclusions These heterogeneities in infection exposure have strong implications for the implementation of targeted control interventions to lower the intensity of environmental contamination with parasite eggs and, ultimately, the infection risk to humans.