Sucking lice are obligate ectoparasites. This means that they can not survive off of their host, and therefore, require host-host contact in order to move throughout a population. Previously, we marked the lice living on mouse lemurs and tracked their movement throughout the population to predict social contacts in these cryptic, nocturnal lemurs, and to better understand how parasites naturally move throughout populations.
Continuing this work in other mammals, we are using lice as a model of how pathogens move through populations.
Lice as vectors of disease
Lice have a suite of adaptations to attach to and feed on their hosts. Since they are hematophagous parasites,they are also potentially exposed to their host’s blood-borne pathogens with every feeding bout.
Historically, human hygiene practices were limited, and lice acted as important vectors of human diseases like epidemic typhus, trench fever, and epidemic relapsing fever. Before the advent of antibiotics, louse-borne pathogens were among the leading causes of mortality. In modern times, lice are often neglected vectors of disease, although their presence is abundant, particularly in communities where overcrowding and poverty are common and hygiene practices are limited.
We are using Madagascar as a model system to better understand the role of lice as vectors of infectious diseases in communities living in poverty.