Thelazia callipaeda, commonly known as the ‘oriental eyeworm’, has been recently reported in Italy and other European countries. The insect/s that act as intermediate hosts and details of larval development inside the vector remain unclear. In order to (1) demonstrate the species of fly that may act as vector/s for T. callipaeda in southern Italy (Site A) and China (Site B) and (2) describe the larval development of the nematode in the body of flies, 847 Phortica (Drosophilidae) flies were collected from the above two sites, each with a history of human and/or canine thelaziosis. Flies were identified as Phortica variegata (245 – site A) and Phortica okadai (602 – site B), experimentally infected by 1st-stage larvae (L1), kept at different temperatures and dissected daily until day 180 post-infection (p.i.). Dead flies from site A were subjected to specific polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to detect T. callipaeda. To demonstrate the role of Phortica as vectors of T. callipaeda, 3rd-stage larvae (L3) recovered from the proboscis of flies were deposited onto the cornea of the eyes of dogs and rabbits. Following dissection, 3 (2·9%) of P. variegata in site A were found to be infected by L3 in the proboscis on days +14, +21 and +53 p.i., compared with 26 (18·4%) of Phortica flies recorded as being positive by PCR. Sequences from positive PCR products were 99% identical to sequences of the corresponding species available in GenBank (AY207464). At site B, 106 (17·6%) of 602 dissected P. okadai were found to be infected by T. callipaeda larvae (different stages) and in total 62 L3 were recovered from the proboscis of 34 (5·6%) flies. The shortest time in which L3 were found was at day +14, +17, +19, and +50 p.i. respectively, depending on the environmental temperatures. Of 30 flies overwintered for 6 months, 6 L3 were detected at day +180 p.i. in 3 flies (10%). The biology of larval development was reconstructed on the basis of the dissection of 602 P. okadai-infected flies and the morphology of larval stages in the insect body described. The present work provides evidence that P. variegata and P. okadai act as vectors for T. callipaeda in southern Europe and in China, respectively. The phenomenon of overwintering is described here for the first time for T. callipaeda and discussed. Finally, the relationship between T. callipaeda and its fly vector is considered in light of disease prophylaxis and to model its dissemination into habitats and environments favourable to Phortica flies.
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