Background: Vivax malaria was successfully eliminated from the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the late 1970s but re-emerged in 1993. Two decades later as the ROK enters the final stages of malaria elimination, dedicated surveillance of the local P. vivax population is critical. We apply a population genetic approach to gauge P. vivax transmission dynamics in the ROK between 2010 and 2012.
Methodology/principal findings: P. vivax positive blood samples from 98 autochthonous cases were collected from patients attending health centers in the ROK in 2010 (n = 27), 2011 (n = 48) and 2012 (n = 23). Parasite genotyping was undertaken at 9 tandem repeat markers. Although not reaching significance, a trend of increasing population diversity was observed from 2010 (HE = 0.50 ± 0.11) to 2011 (HE = 0.56 ± 0.08) and 2012 (HE = 0.60 ± 0.06). Conversely, linkage disequilibrium declined during the same period: IAS = 0.15 in 2010 (P = 0.010), 0.09 in 2011 (P = 0.010) and 0.05 in 2012 (P = 0.010). In combination with data from other ROK studies undertaken between 1994 and 2007, our results are consistent with increasing parasite divergence since re-emergence. Polyclonal infections were rare (3% infections) suggesting that local out-crossing alone was unlikely to explain the increased divergence. Cases introduced from an external reservoir may therefore have contributed to the increased diversity. Aside from one isolate, all infections carried a short MS20 allele (142 or 149 bp), not observed in other studies in tropical endemic countries despite high diversity, inferring that these regions are unlikely reservoirs.
Conclusions: Whilst a number of factors may explain the observed population genetic trends, the available evidence suggests that an external geographic reservoir with moderate diversity sustains the majority of P. vivax infection in the ROK, with important implications for malaria elimination.