Tick exposure and risk of tick-borne pathogens infection in hunters and hunting dogs: a citizen science approach.
Citizen science may be described as a research involving communities and individuals, other than scientists. Following this approach, along with the evidence of a high prevalence of Rickettsia spp. in Dermacentor marginatus from wild boars in hunting areas of southern Italy, this study aimed to assess the occurrence of tick-borne pathogens (TBPs) in ticks collected from hunters and their hunting dogs. From October 2020 to May 2021, ticks were collected from wild boar hunters (n = 347) and their dogs (n = 422) in regions of southern Italy (i.e., Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Sicily). All ticks were morphologically identified, classified according to gender, feeding status, host, geographic origin, and molecularly screened for zoonotic bacteria. Adult ticks (n = 411) were collected from hunters (i.e., n = 29; 8.4%; mean of 1.6 ticks for person) and dogs (i.e., n = 200; 47.4%; mean of 1.8 ticks for animal) and identified at species level as D. marginatus (n = 240, 58.4%), Rhipicephalus sanguineus sensu lato (n = 135, 32.8%), Rhipicephalus turanicus (n = 27, 6.6%) and Ixodes ricinus (n = 9, 2.2%). Overall, 45 ticks (i.e., 10.9%, 95% CI: 8.3-14.3) tested positive for at least one tick-borne agent, being Rickettsia slovaca the most frequent species (n = 37, 9.0%), followed by Rickettsia raoultii, Rickettsia aeschlimannii, Rickettsia monacensis, Coxiella burnetii, Borrelia lusitaniae and Candidatus Midichloria mitochondrii (n = 2, 0.5% each). Data herein presented demonstrate a relevant risk of exposure to TBPs for hunters and hunting dogs during the hunting activities. Therefore, the role of hunters to monitor the circulation of ticks in rural areas may be considered an effective example of the citizen science approach, supporting the cooperation toward private and public health stakeholders.