Head lice, Pediculus humanus capitis, occur in four divergent mitochondrial clades (A, B, C and D), each having particular geographical distributions. Recent studies suggest that head lice, as is the case of body lice, can act as a vector for louse-borne diseases. Therefore, understanding the genetic diversity of lice worldwide is of critical importance to our understanding of the risk of louse-borne diseases.
Here, we report the results of the first molecular screening of pygmies’ head lice in the Republic of Congo for seven pathogens and an analysis of lice mitochondrial clades. We developed two duplex clade-specific real-time PCRs and identified three major mitochondrial clades: A, C, and D indicating high diversity among the head lice studied. We identified the presence of a dangerous human pathogen, Borrelia recurrentis, the causative agent of relapsing fever, in ten clade A head lice, which was not reported in the Republic of Congo, and B. theileri in one head louse. The results also show widespread infection among head lice with several species of Acinetobacter. A. junii was the most prevalent, followed by A. ursingii, A. baumannii, A. johnsonii, A. schindleri, A. lwoffii, A. nosocomialis and A. towneri.
Our study is the first to show the presence of B. recurrentis in African pygmies’ head lice in the Republic of Congo. This study is also the first to report the presence of DNAs of B. theileri and several species of Acinetobacter in human head lice. Further studies are needed to determine whether the head lice can transmit these pathogenic bacteria from person to another.
Head lice, Pediculus capitis humanus, and body lice, Pediculus h. humanus, are obligatory ectoparasites that feed exclusively on human blood. Currently, the body louse is the only recognized vector of at least three deadly bacterial pathogens that have killed millions of peoples, namely: Rickettsia prowazekii, Bartonella quintana and Borrelia recurrentis, responsible for epidemic typhus, trench fever and relapsing fever, respectively. In this work, we aimed to study the genetic diversity of head lice collected from African Pygmies in the Republic of Congo and to look for louse-borne pathogens in these lice. We detected B. recurrentis in head lice belonged to clade A that is prevalent in the Republic of Congo. Our study also show, for the first time, the presence of DNAs of B. theileri and several species of Acinetobacter in human head lice. Despite several investigations into the transmissibility of numerous infectious agents, no conclusive evidence has demonstrated the transmission of disease by head lice. That said, we believe that pathogens detected in head lice may be an indirect tool for evaluating the risk of louse-borne diseases in humans.