Background: Trypanosoma cruzi - the causative agent of Chagas disease - is known to circulate in commensal pests, but its occurrence in urban environments is not well understood. We addressed this deficit by determining the distribution and prevalence of T. cruzi infection in urban populations of commensal and wild rodents across New Orleans (Louisiana, USA). We assessed whether T. cruzi prevalence varies according to host species identity and species co-occurrences, and whether T. cruzi prevalence varies across mosaics of abandonment that shape urban rodent demography and assemblage structure in the city.
Methods: Leveraging city-wide population and assemblage surveys, we tested 1428 rodents comprising 5 species (cotton rats, house mice, Norway rats, rice rats and roof rats) captured at 98 trapping sites in 11 study areas across New Orleans including nine residential neighborhoods and a natural area in Orleans Parish and a neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish. We also assayed Norway rats at one site in Baton Rouge (Louisiana, USA). We used chi-square tests to determine whether infection prevalence differed among host species, among study areas, and among trapping sites according to the number of host species present. We used generalized linear mixed models to identify predictors of T. cruzi infection for all rodents and each host species, respectively.
Results: We detected T. cruzi in all host species in all study areas in New Orleans, but not in Baton Rouge. Though overall infection prevalence was 11%, it varied by study area and trapping site. There was no difference in prevalence by species, but roof rats exhibited the broadest geographical distribution of infection across the city. Infected rodents were trapped in densely populated neighborhoods like the French Quarter. Infection prevalence seasonally varied with abandonment, increasing with greater abandonment during the summer and declining with greater abandonment during the winter.
Conclusions: Our findings illustrate that T. cruzi can be widespread in urban landscapes, suggesting that transmission and disease risk is greater than is currently recognized. Our findings also suggest that there is disproportionate risk of transmission in historically underserved communities, which could reinforce long-standing socioecological disparities in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Keywords: Abandonment; Chagas disease; Commensal pest; Hurricane Katrina; Mice; Public health; Rats; Urban zoonosis.