Piroplasmosis in cattle is caused by tick-borne haemoprotozoan parasites of the genera Theileria and Babesia. Molecular detection techniques offer higher sensitivity and specificity than microscopy examination methods and serological tests. A reverse line blot (RLB) macroarray that included generic and species-specific probes for Theileria annulata, Theileria buffeli, Babesia bovis, Babesia bigemina, Babesia divergens and Babesia major was used to study the presence and identity of the piroplasm species infecting 263 bovine blood samples from 79 farms, most of them in Northern Spain. Microscopy examination of blood smears and haematology were also performed whenever possible to identify animals with parasitaemia.
RLB hybridisation identified infection in 54.0% of the samples, whereas only 28.8% were positive by microscopy examination. The most frequently found species was T. buffeli, present in 42.6% of the samples. T. annulata was found in 22 samples (8.4%) from 12 farms, including 9 farms (14 samples) located in Northern Spain where presence of the vector is not very common. Babesia infections were less frequently detected: B. major was found in 3.0% of the samples, B. bigemina in 2.7%, B. bovis in 2.3% and B. divergens in 1.1%. Mixed infections were detected in 14 samples, accounting for six different combinations of species.
This is the first report in which B. major and B. divergens have been detected in Spain using molecular identification techniques and the first time that B. bovis has been detected in Northern Spain. The detection of T. annulata in Northern Spain suggests that the distribution of Mediterranean theileriosis might be changing. Samples with positive RLB hybridisation but negative microscopy had haematology values within the normal ranges suggesting that they corresponded to chronic carriers that may serve as reservoirs of the infection. In this sense, sensitive and specific laboratorial tests like RLB that clearly identify the parasite and can detect subclinical infections are essential to establish good control measures.