Mycobacterium caprae infection of red deer in western Austria-optimized use of pathology data to infer infection dynamics

Nigsch, Annette; Glawischnig, Walter; Bagó, Zoltán; Greber, Norbert


Austria is officially bovine tuberculosis (TB) free, but during the last decade the west of the country experienced sporadic TB cases in cattle. Free-ranging red deer are known to be the maintenance host of Mycobacterium (M.) caprae in certain areas in Austria, where cattle can become infected on alpine pastures shared with deer. The epidemiology of TB in deer in alpine regions is still poorly understood. To inform decisions on efficient interventions against TB in deer, a method is needed to better capture the infection dynamics on population level. A total of 4,521 free-ranging red deer from Austria's most western Federal state Vorarlberg were TB-tested between 2009 and 2018. M. caprae was confirmed in samples from 257 animals. Based on descriptions of TB-like lesions, TB positive animals were categorized with a newly developed lesion score called "Patho Score." Analyses using this Patho Score allowed us to distinguish between endemic, epidemic and sporadic TB situations and revealed different roles of subgroups of infected deer in infection dynamics. Overall, deer in poor condition, deer of older age and stags were the subgroups that were significantly more often TB positive (p = 0.02 or smaller for all subgroups). Deer in poor condition (p < 0.001) and stags (p = 0.04) also showed more often advanced lesions, indicating their role in mycobacterial spread. TB was never detected in fawns, while hinds were the subgroup that showed the fewest advanced lesions. Analysis of outbreaks of TB and lesion development in yearlings provided some evidence for the role of winter feeding as a source for increased infection transmission. Sporadic cases in TB-free areas appear to precede outbreaks in these areas. These currently TB-free areas should receive particular attention in sampling schemes to be able to detect early spreading of the infection. The Patho Score is a quick, easy-to-apply and reproducible tool that provides new insights on the epidemiology of TB in deer at population level and is flexible enough to relate heterogeneous wildlife monitoring data collected following different sampling plans. This lesion score was used for systematic assessment of infection dynamics of mycobacterial infections.