Heartwater (cowdriosis) is an important, often fatal , tick-borne disease of domestic and wild ruminants
in sub-Saharan Africa and some Indian Ocean and Caribbean islands. The causal agent, Cowdria
ruminantium (Cowdry 1925), is a rickettsia closely related to members of the genus Ehrlichia, and is
probably a part of a complex of genomic species. Imported breeds of sheep and goats (especially
Angoras) are highly susceptible, but indigenous populations of endemic areas may be resistant to infection
. Very young stock (less than 9 d old) possess a natural resistance that is unrelated to the immune
status of the dams. Symptoms of heartwater vary, but usually begin with fever and may involve
neurological signs and respiratory distress. Clinical diagnosis is based on symptoms, history of tick exposure
and post-mortem findings, and is confirmed by demonstration of characteristic rickettsial
organisms in vascular endothelial cells. Laboratory diagnosis is retrospective and includes fluorescent
antibody and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays. Serological tests are compromised by non-specific
reactions with certain Ehrlichia spp. DNA and oligonucleotide probes have been developed, but
are thus far unavailable in many countries affected by heartwater. Treatment with tetracyclines is effective
if begun in the early stages of infection. Control is based on a knowledge of the disease cycle in
nature, and is achieved through judicious tick control, vaccination or both . A virulent, blood-based vaccine
is available. Existence of a carrier state in recovered animals, including wild ruminants, complicates
control efforts, and eradication is feasible only in circumscribed foci. Problem areas in fundamental
and applied research on heartwater, as it affects sheep and goats, are discussed.
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