Background: The epidemiology of E. ruminantium infection in extensively managed young animals is not adequately
understood. Thus in this study, we monitored the onset (age at first infection) and kinetics of E. ruminantium infection
and antibody response in extensively managed newborn lambs and kids at three sites in The Gambia.
Methods: We used a nested pCS20 PCR and MAP1-B ELISA in a longitudinal study to monitor the onset (age at first
infection) and kinetics of E. ruminantium infection and antibody response respectively, in 77 newborn lambs and kids
under a traditional husbandry system at three sites (Kerr Seringe, Keneba, Bansang) in The Gambia where heartwater is
known to occur. The animals were monitored for field tick infestation and the comparative performance of the two
assays in detecting E. ruminantium infection was also assessed.
Results: The infection rate detected by pCS20 PCR varied between 8.6% and 54.8% over the 162-day study period.
Nineteen per cent of the animals in week 1 post-partum tested positive by pCS20 PCR with half of these infections (7/
14) detected in the first 3 days after birth, suggesting that transmission other than by tick feeding had played a role. The
earliest detectable A. variegatum infestation in the animals occurred in week 16 after birth. Antibodies detected by MAP1-
B ELISA also varied, between 11.5% and 90%. Although there is considerable evidence that this assay can detect false
positives and due to this and other reasons serology is not a reliable predictor of infection at least for heartwater. In
contrast to the pCS20 PCR, the serological assay detected the highest proportion of positive animals in week 1 with a
gradual decline in seropositivity with increasing age. The pCS20 PCR detected higher E. ruminantium prevalence in the
animals with increasing age and both the Spearman's rank test (rs = -0.1512; P = 0.003) and kappa statistic (-0.091 to
0.223) showed a low degree of agreement between the two assays.
Conclusion: The use of pCS20 PCR supported by transmission studies and clinical data could provide more accurate
information on heartwater epidemiology in endemic areas and single-occasion testing of an animal may not reveal its true
infection status. The view is supported because both the vector and vertical transmission may play a vital role in the
epidemiology of heartwater in young small ruminants; the age range of 4 and 12 weeks corresponds to the period of
increased susceptibility to heartwater in traditionally managed small ruminants.