Epidemiological surveillance of Leishmania infantum in wild lagomorphs in Spanish Mediterranean ecosystems

Preventive Veterinary Medicine


Wild lagomorphs play a key epidemiological role as reservoirs of Leishmania infantum, causative agent of the largest outbreak of human leishmaniosis in Europe to date. A large-scale survey study was conducted on wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and Iberian hare (Lepus granatensis) populations in Spanish Mediterranean ecosystems to evaluate the exposure of L. infantum and investigate potential risk factors associated with exposure to this zoonotic parasite. Between 2018 and 2021, a total of 631 wild lagomorphs (471 wild rabbits and 160 Iberian hares) were collected in Andalusia (southern Spain) and tested for antibodies against L. infantum using the indirect fluorescent antibody test (IFAT). Spleen samples from 563 of the wild lagomorphs sampled (441 wild rabbits and 122 Iberian hares) were also evaluated by real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR) for detection of Leishmania kDNA. Exposure to L. infantum (positive by IFAT and/or qPCR) was detected in 56.4 % (356/631; 95 %CI: 52.3–60.3) of the lagomorphs analyzed. Anti-Leishmania antibodies were found in 12.8 % (81/631; 95 %CI: 10.2–15.5) of the animals, and L. infantum kDNA was detected in 59.0 % (332/563; 95 %CI: 54.9–63.0) of the spleen samples tested. Phylogenetic analysis revealed high homology (99.9–100 %) between L. infantum sequences obtained and strains previously isolated from humans in Spain. While apparent seroprevalence was significantly higher in Iberian hares (19.4 %; 95 %CI: 13.3–25.5) compared to wild rabbits (10.6 %; 95 %CI: 7.9–13.4), no significant differences in prevalence were found between wild rabbits (61.0 %; 95 %CI: 56.5–65.6) and Iberian hares (51.6 %; 95 %CI: 42.8–60.5). At least one positive animal was found on 64.8 % (70/108) of the hunting grounds sampled, and a high-risk spatial cluster (P < 0.001) was also identified in central Andalusia. The multivariable analysis identified bioclimatic level (meso-Mediterranean climate) and the presence of goats on hunting grounds as risk factors potentially associated with L. infantum exposure in wild lagomorphs. This study shows high, widespread exposure, but heterogeneous distribution of L. infantum in wild lagomorph populations in Mediterranean ecosystems in southern Spain. The results point to the need to promote integrated surveillance programs for the detection of Leishmania spp. in wild lagomorphs in order to establish effective control measures against human leishmaniosis under a One Health approach.

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