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Zika Virus in Gabon (Central Africa) – 2007: A New Threat from Aedes albopictus?
By Grard et al.
PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8(2): e2681., 2014
Cite: 1178020
Full Text (edited version below)

Grard et al. 2014. Zika Virus in Gabon (Central Africa) – 2007: A New Threat from Aedes albopictus? PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8(2): e2681.

Background

Chikungunya and dengue viruses emerged in Gabon in 2007, with large outbreaks primarily affecting the capital Libreville and several northern towns. Both viruses subsequently spread to the south-east of the country, with new outbreaks occurring in 2010. The mosquito species Aedes albopictus, that was known as a secondary vector for both viruses, recently invaded the country and was the primary vector involved in the Gabonese outbreaks. We conducted a retrospective study of human sera and mosquitoes collected in Gabon from 2007 to 2010, in order to identify other circulating arboviruses.

Methodology/Principal Findings

Sample collections, including 4312 sera from patients presenting with painful febrile disease, and 4665 mosquitoes belonging to 9 species, split into 247 pools (including 137 pools of Aedes albopictus), were screened with molecular biology methods. Five human sera and two Aedes albopictus pools, all sampled in an urban setting during the 2007 outbreak, were positive for the flavivirus Zika (ZIKV). The ratio of Aedes albopictus pools positive for ZIKV was similar to that positive for dengue virus during the concomitant dengue outbreak suggesting similar mosquito infection rates and, presumably, underlying a human ZIKV outbreak.

Author Summary

Not previously considered an important human arboviral pathogen, the epidemic capacity of Zika virus (ZIKV, a dengue-related flavivirus) was revealed by the Micronesia outbreak in 2007, which affected about 5000 persons. Widely distributed throughout tropical areas of Asia and Africa, ZIKV is transmitted by a broad range of mosquito species, most of which are sylvatic or rural, Aedes aegypti, an anthropophilic and urban species, being considered the main ZIKV epidemic vector. In a context of emerging arbovirus infections (chikungunya (CHIKV) and dengue (DENV)) in Gabon since 2007, we conducted a retrospective study to detect other, related viruses. In samples collected during the concurrent CHIKV/DENV outbreaks that occurred in the capital city in 2007, we detected ZIKV in both humans and mosquitoes, and notably the Asian mosquito Aedes albopictus that recently invaded the country and was the main vector responsible for these outbreaks. We found that the Gabonese ZIKV strain belonged to the African lineage, and phylogenetic analysis suggested ancestral diversification and spread rather than recent introduction. These findings, showing for the first time epidemic ZIKV activity in an urban environment in Central Africa and the presence of ZIKV in the invasive mosquito Aedes albopictus, raise the possibility of a new emerging threat to human health.

Introduction

ZIKV has also been isolated from mosquitoes collected in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic and Uganda [1], [6], [8], [9]. These mosquitoes mainly belonged to sylvan or rural species of the genus Aedes, and more precisely to the Aedimorphus, Diceromyia and Stegomyia subgenera. The virus has also been isolated in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ivory Coast) [6],[9] and Asia [10] from Aedes aegypti, a species being considered the main ZIKV epidemic vector outside Africa [11]. Moreover, Ae. aegypti was shown experimentally to be an efficient ZIKV vector [12]–[14].

Clinical description

Clinical information was available for only one ZIKV-positive patient, who had mild arthralgia, subjective fever, headache, rash, mild asthenia, myalgia, diarrhea and vomiting. No information was available on this patient's outcome. Cycle threshold values for human blood samples were high (>37 cycles), suggesting low viral loads (data not shown).

Vector involvement

Aedes albopictus was the predominant species collected, accounting for 55.4% of the mosquito pools, while Aedes aegypti accounted for 18.2% (Table 1). The other mosquito species consisted of members of the Aedes simpsoni complex, Anopheles gambiae, Mansonia africana, Mansonia uniformis, Culex quinquefasciatus, Eretmapodites quinquevittatus and unidentified Culex species. Positive mosquito pools were captured from two suburbs (Nzeng-Ayong and Alenkiri) where Aedes albopictus was the predominant species (Figure 1, Table 1).

Discussion

Evidence of human ZIKV infections in Central Africa is limited to one isolate from RCA in 1991[6] and two serological surveys performed 50 years ago in Gabon [25], [26]. No report of human ZIKV infections was made in other countries of the Congo basin forest block, despite probable circulation through a sylvan natural cycle. We provide here the first direct evidence of human ZIKV infections in Gabon, as well as its occurrence in an urban transmission cycle, and the probable role of Ae. albopictus as an epidemic vector.

Of note, ZIKV transmission occurred here in a previously undocumented urban cycle, supporting the potential for urbanization suggested in 2010 by Weaver and Reisen [27]. While some mosquito species (including Ae. aegypti) previously found to be associated with ZIKV, were captured and tested here, only Ae. albopictus pools were positive for this virus. Moreover, this species largely outnumbered Ae. aegypti in the suburbs of Libreville where human cases were detected, suggesting that Ae. albopictus played a major role in ZIKV transmission in Libreville.

The ratio of ZIKV-positive Ae. albopictus pools is similar to that reported for DENV-positive pools, suggesting that these two viruses infect similar proportions of mosquitoes. The small number of recorded human ZIKV cases, by comparison with DENV cases, may be due to the occurrence of subclinical forms of ZIKV infections that did not required medical attention. Thus, an underlying ZIKV epidemic transmission might have been masked by concomitant CHIKV/DENV outbreaks.

The natural histories of CHIKV and ZIKV display several similarities. Before the large Indian Ocean outbreaks in 2005–2007, chikungunya fever was a neglected arboviral disease.

In Asia, both viruses are thought to circulate mainly in a human-mosquito cycle involving Ae. aegypti [11], [14], [31]. Together with the recent Yap Island outbreak, this prompted some researchers to re-examine the susceptibility of Ae. aegypti to ZIKV infection [14]. However, it must be noted that the vector of the Yap Island outbreak was not definitely identified since the predominant potential vector species Aedes hensilli remained negative [15], and that ZIKV has been isolated only once from Ae. aegypti in Asia [10], so that its vector status in natura is not confirmed.

Finally both CHIKV and ZIKV have shown their ability to adapt to a new vector, Ae. albopictus, upon introduction in an environment where their primary vector was outnumbered. This mosquito species being native to South-East Asia, our findings may help to explain human ZIKV transmission in Asia.

Aedes albopictus was first introduced in Africa in 1991 [34] and detected in Gabon in 2007, where its invasion likely contributed to the emergence of CHIKV and DENV in this country[17]–[19], [35]. Multiple lines of evidence supporting its increasing impact as an arboviral vector have also been obtained during CHIKV outbreaks in the Indian Ocean region (2005–2007) and in Italy (2007) [36], [37] through viral evolutionary convergence of Ae. albopictus adaptive mutations [38]–[41]. Whether or not the transmission of ZIKV in Central Africa was also link to such an adaptative mutation of ZIKV to Ae. albopictus cannot be answered at this stage.

Why ZIKV has not yet been detected in the areas where DENV and CHIKV have already spread via Ae. albopictus is unclear, but it may be an ongoing process which we are just starting to detect. The spread of CHIKV reflects the ability of arboviruses to adapt to alternative hosts, and the resulting public health concerns in both developed and developing countries. Is ZIKV the next virus to succeed CHIKV as an emerging global threat? The increasing geographic range of Ae. albopictus in Africa, Europe, and the Americas [34], [36],[43], [44], together with the ongoing ZIKV outbreak in French Polynesia at the time of writing[45] suggest this possibility should be seriously considered.