Rhodnius prolixus is the main vector of Chagas disease in Venezuela. Here, domestic infestations of poor quality rural housing have persisted despite four decades of vector control. This is in contrast to the Southern Cone region of South America, where the main vector, Triatoma infestans, has been eliminated over large areas. The repeated colonisation of houses by silvatic populations of R. prolixus potentially explains the control difficulties. However, controversy surrounds the existence of silvatic R. prolixus: it has been suggested that all silvatic populations are in fact Rhodnius robustus, a related species of minor epidemiological importance. Here we investigate, by direct sequencing (mtcytb, D2) and by microsatellite analysis, 1) the identity of silvatic Rhodnius and 2) whether silvatic populations of Rhodnius are isolated from domestic populations.
Methods and Findings
Direct sequencing confirmed the presence of R. prolixus in palms and that silvatic bugs can colonise houses, with house and palm specimens sharing seven cytb haplotypes. Additionally, mitochondrial introgression was detected between R. robustus and R. prolixus, indicating a previous hybridisation event. The use of ten polymorphic microsatellite loci revealed a lack of genetic structure between silvatic and domestic ecotopes (non-significant FST values), which is indicative of unrestricted gene flow.
Our analyses demonstrate that silvatic R. prolixus presents an unquestionable threat to the control of Chagas disease in Venezuela. The design of improved control strategies is essential for successful long term control and could include modified spraying and surveillance practices, together with housing improvements.
Chagas disease is spread by blood-feeding insects (triatomine bugs) that colonise poor-quality houses. Disease control relies primarily on killing domestic bugs by spraying dwellings with residual insecticide. In Venezuela, sustained control has proved difficult despite four decades of campaigns. Considered the main vector in Venezuela, the bug Rhodnius prolixus may also infest palm trees and might repeatedly recolonise houses from palms. A complication is that a morphologically similar species, R. robustus, also infests palms but is of minor medical importance. Therefore, confusion exists as to the true identity of palm bugs and their importance in disease transmission.
We applied two molecular methods (sequencing DNA of the cytochrome b gene, and analysing microsatellites) to triatomines collected in Venezuela so that we could identify unequivocally the species of palm-dwelling Rhodnius and establish their role in maintaining house infestations. We demonstrated that R. prolixus is indeed present in palms, and that such silvatic populations can colonise houses and are a threat to the successful control of Chagas disease in Venezuela. This finding resolves a longstanding controversy of fundamental epidemiological importance. It is also an example of the application of molecular epidemiology to correct vector identification and successful disease control.