Disease caused by insect bites can be transmitted to children at birth

May 3, 2010

A North Carolina State University researcher has discovered that bacteria transmitted by fleas-and potentially ticks-can be passed to human babies by the mother, causing chronic infections and raising the possibility of bacterially induced birth defects.

Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, professor of internal medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences, is among the world's leading experts on Bartonella, a bacteria that is maintained in nature by fleas, ticks and other biting insects, but which can be transmitted by infected cats and dogs as well. The most commonly known Bartonella-related illness is cat scratch disease, caused by B. henselae, a strain of Bartonella that can be carried in a cat's blood for months to years. Cat scratch disease was thought to be a self-limiting, or "one-time" infection; however, Breitschwerdt's previous work discovered cases of children and adults with chronic, blood-borne Bartonella infections-from strains of the bacteria that are most often transmitted to cats (B. henselae) and dogs (B. vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii) by fleas and other insects.

In his most recent case study, Breitschwerdt's research group tested blood and tissue samples taken over a period of years from a mother, father and son who had suffered chronic illnesses for over a decade. Autopsy samples from their daughter-the son's twin who died shortly after birth-contained of B. henselae and B. vinsonii subsp. berkhoffi infection, which was also found in the other members of the family.

Both parents had suffered recurring neurological symptoms including headaches and , as well as shortness of breath, and fatigue before the children were born. In addition, their 10-year-old son was chronically ill from birth and their daughter died due to a heart defect at nine days of age.

Results of the parents' medical histories and the microbiological tests indicated that the parents had been exposed to Bartonella prior to the birth of the twins, and finding the same bacteria in both children, one shortly after birth and the other 10 years later, indicates that they may have become infected while in utero.

Breitschwerdt's research appears online in the April 14 Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

"This is yet more evidence that Bartonella bacteria cause chronic intravascular infections in people with otherwise normal immune systems, infections that can span a decade or more," Breitschwerdt says. "Also this new evidence supports the potential of trans-placental infection and raises the possibility that maternal infection with these might also cause birth defects."

The Department of Clinical Sciences is part of NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Breitschwerdt is also an adjunct professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

More information: "Molecular evidence of perinatal transmission of Bartonella vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii and B.henselae to a child" Authors: Edward B. Breitschwerdt, Ricardo G. Maggi and Patricia E. Mascarelli, NC State University; Peter Farmer, Department of Pathology, North Shore University Hospital. Published: April 14, 2010 in Journal of Clinical Microbiology

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Anti-malaria drug shows promise as Zika virus treatment

November 17, 2017
A new collaborative study led by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) and UC San Diego School of Medicine has found that a medication used to prevent and treat malaria may also be effective ...

Decrease in sunshine, increase in Rickets

November 17, 2017
A University of Toronto student and professor have teamed up to discover that Britain's increasing cloudiness during the summer could be an important reason for the mysterious increase in Rickets among British children over ...

Scientists identify biomarkers that indicate likelihood of survival in infected patients

November 17, 2017
Scientists have identified a set of biomarkers that indicate which patients infected with the Ebola virus are most at risk of dying from the disease.

Research team unlocks secrets of Ebola

November 16, 2017
In a comprehensive and complex molecular study of blood samples from Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, published today (Nov. 16, 2017) in Cell Host and Microbe, a scientific team led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison has ...

Study raises possibility of naturally acquired immunity against Zika virus

November 16, 2017
Birth defects in babies born infected with Zika virus remain a major health concern. Now, scientists suggest the possibility that some women in high-risk Zika regions may already be protected and not know it.

A structural clue to attacking malaria's 'Achilles heel'

November 16, 2017
Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and PATH's Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) have shed light on how the human immune system recognizes the malaria parasite though investigation of antibodies generated ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.