BACKGROUND: The occurrence of infections by Dirofilaria immitis in canine and human populations depends on several factors linked to both the definitive and intermediate hosts. Little data are available on the risk of human and dog exposure to D. immitis in endemic areas. Data collected on dog- and human-bait traps in endemic areas of north-eastern Italy were used to estimate the likelihood of a receptive host coming into contact with an infected vector. METHODS: From 1997 to 1999, mosquitoes were collected from three sampling sites of north-eastern Italy on D. immitis microfilaraemic dogs and on human baits. The bite/night/host rates were determined based on the number of feeding and probing mosquitoes on dogs and humans, respectively. The survival/mortality rates of different species of mosquitoes following the blood meal, and the rate of natural Dirofilaria infection in unfed specimens were estimated. The risk of exposure of dogs and humans to infected mosquito species was determined by combining the bite/host/night and the mosquito infection rates. RESULTS: A total of 1,165 mosquitoes were collected on human (n=815) and dog (n=350) baits with varying species composition (i.e., Culex pipiens, 87.3% and Ochlerotatus caspius, 11.6%). Overall, dogs were more attractive to Cx pipiens than humans (feeding rate 70.2% vs probing rate 25.9%). The highest bite/night/host rate was 84.0 for dogs and 26.5 for humans. Cx pipiens displayed a mortality rate of 76.3% within 13 days and Oc. caspius of 100% within two days following the infective blood meal. In addition, D. immitis DNA was detected in unfed Cx pipiens (infection rate of 0.26%-2.07%). The infection rate adjusted for mosquito mortality was 0.38%. Based on data collected, the contact between an infected mosquito and a host can occur as often as every four nights for D. immitis infected-mosquitoes in dogs and within two weeks for humans. CONCLUSIONS: Cx pipiens was confirmed as the most efficient natural vector of D. immitis in the studied area. In endemic areas, the risk of transmission can be very high for dogs and relevant for humans. Despite the increased awareness of veterinarians and owners on canine dirofilarioses, dogs from rural areas still maintain the natural life cycle of Dirofilaria spp., therefore acting as a source of infection to humans through vector bites.
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