Disease Caused By Insect Bites Can Be Transmitted To Children At Birth
For Immediate Release
Tracey Peake, News Services
North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
May 5, 2010
(Includes embedded video featuring Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, professor of
internal medicine at North Carolina State University, discussing recent
research into the Bartonella bacteria. Animals and humans can both
become infected with the bacteria from insect bites.)
A North Carolina State University researcher has discovered that
bacteria transmitted by fleas - and potentially ticks - can be passed to
human babies by the mother, causing chronic infections and raising the
possibility of bacterially induced birth defects.
Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, professor of internal medicine in the Department
of Clinical Sciences, is among the world's leading experts on
Bartonella, a bacteria that is maintained in nature by fleas, ticks and
other biting insects, but which can be transmitted by infected cats and
dogs as well. The most commonly known Bartonella-related illness is cat
scratch disease, caused by B. henselae, a strain of Bartonella that can
be carried in a cat's blood for months to years. Cat scratch disease was
thought to be a self-limiting, or "one-time" infection; however,
Breitschwerdt' s previous work discovered cases of children and adults
with chronic, blood-borne Bartonella infections - from strains of the
bacteria that are most often transmitted to cats (B. henselae) and dogs
(B. vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii) by fleas and other insects.
In his most recent case study, Breitschwerdt' s research group tested
blood and tissue samples taken over a period of years from a mother,
father and son who had suffered chronic illnesses for over a decade.
Autopsy samples from their daughter - the son's twin who died shortly
after birth - contained DNA evidence of B. henselae and B. vinsonii
subsp. berkhoffi infection, which was also found in the other members of
Both parents had suffered recurring neurological symptoms including
headaches and memory loss, as well as shortness of breath, muscle
weakness and fatigue before the children were born. In addition, their
10-year-old son was chronically ill from birth and their daughter died
due to a heart defect at nine days of age.
Results of the parents' medical histories and the microbiological tests
indicated that the parents had been exposed to Bartonella prior to the
birth of the twins, and finding the same bacteria in both children, one
shortly after birth and the other 10 years later, indicates that they
may have become infected while in utero.
Breitschwerdt' s research appears online in the April 14 Journal of
"This is yet more evidence that Bartonella bacteria cause chronic
intravascular infections in people with otherwise normal immune systems,
infections that can span a decade or more," Breitschwerdt says. "Also
this new evidence supports the potential of trans-placental infection
and raises the possibility that maternal infection with these bacteria
might also cause birth defects."
The Department of Clinical Sciences is part of NC State's College of
Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Breitschwerdt is also an adjunct professor of
medicine at Duke University Medical Center.