First detection of TBE virus in ticks and sero-reactivity in goats in a non-endemic region in the southern part of Switzerland (Canton of Ticino).

In Switzerland, tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is a notifiable human disease with an average of 210 cases per year in the last 10 years (2008–2017). A national surveillance conducted in 2009 reported a prevalence of 0.46% for tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) detected in ticks, which is in accordance with the prevalences found in Europe from 0.1%–5%. The Canton of Ticino in the southern part of Switzerland, geographically separated from the rest of the national territory by the Alps, is considered a non-endemic region, as no autochthonous clinical cases and no TBEV presence in ticks have ever been reported. In order to understand the epidemiological situation in Ticino, we conducted a large study investigating the TBEV presence in field-collected Ixodes ricinus ticks and in goat and human sera. Goats and sheep were considered as sentinel hosts showing persistence of antibodies also after 28 months in the absence of symptoms; this longevity supports the data validity to characterize an area with the TBEV status. The goat sera collection was composed of a total of 662 samples from 37 flocks. The total seroprevalence was 14.6%. 39 (40%) of the 97 SNT-positive samples showed an antibody titer ≥ 1:120 which indicates recent infection and consequently the probable presence of active foci among the pastures frequented by the goats belonging to 10 flocks. In total, 51 owners participated in the study and all were TBEV antibody-free. A total of 12’052 I. ricinus ticks (nymphs and adults) were collected and 1’371 pools were tested using quantitative real-time RT-PCR. Only one positive pool was reported with a prevalence of 0.35%. Metagenomic analysis revealed that the TBEV strain isolated from the ticks collected in Ticino is closely related to 2 strains coming from the Canton of Valais (99.1% and 98.7% identity, respectively), a neighbouring region of the Canton of Ticino. These two Cantons are close together but separated by high mountains (Alps) and we hypothesize that infected ticks were transported by wild animals from Valais into the Valle Maggia in Ticino where we found positive ticks. In conclusion, our data show for the first time the presence of TBEV in ticks and the related seroreactivity in goats, confirming the presence of TBEV in the environment of the Canton of Ticino. Further surveillance studies will have to be conducted to follow the persistence of TBEV in this region.

Simona Casati Pagani, Simona Frigerio Malossa, Christine Klaus, Donata Hoffmann, Ottavio Beretta, Nicola Bomio-Pacciorini, Mario Lazzaro, Giorgio Merlani, Rahel Ackermann, Christian Beuret
Ticks and tick-borne diseases