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Reduced spillover transmission of Mycobacterium bovis to feral pigs (Sus scofa) following population control of brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula)

  • G. NUGENT (a1), J. WHITFORD (a1), I. J. YOCKNEY (a1) and M. L. CROSS (a1)

In New Zealand, bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is present in domestic cattle and deer herds primarily as the result of on-going disease transmission from the primary wildlife host, the brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). However, bTB is also present in other introduced free-ranging mammalian species. Between 1996 and 2007, we conducted a series of studies to determine whether poison control of possum populations would have any effect on the prevalence of Mycobacterium bovis infection in sympatric feral pigs (Sus scrofa). We compared trends in the prevalence of bTB infection in feral pigs in six study areas: possum numbers were reduced in three areas, but not in the other three, effectively providing a thrice-replicated before-after-control-intervention design. Before possum control, the overall prevalence of culture-confirmed M. bovis infection in feral pigs was 16·7–94·4%, depending on area. Infection prevalence varied little between genders but did vary with age, increasing during the first 2–3 years of life but then declining in older pigs. In the areas in which possum control was applied, M. bovis prevalence in feral pigs fell to near zero within 2–3 years, provided control was applied successfully at the whole-landscape scale. In contrast, prevalence changed much less or not at all in the areas with no possum control. We conclude that feral pigs in New Zealand acquire M. bovis infection mainly by inter-species transmission from possums, but then rarely pass the disease on to other pigs and are end hosts. This is in contrast to the purported role of pigs as bTB maintenance hosts in other countries, and we suggest the difference in host status may reflect differences in the relative importance of the oral route of infection in different environments. Despite harbouring M. bovis infection for a number of years, pigs in New Zealand do not sustain bTB independently, but are good sentinels for disease prevalence in possum populations.

Corresponding author
*Author for correspondence: Dr G. Nugent, Landcare Research – Manaaki Whenua, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand. (Email:
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Epidemiology & Infection
  • ISSN: 0950-2688
  • EISSN: 1469-4409
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