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In Portugal, Ixodes ricinus ticks have been shown to contain DNA of several spirochetes belonging to the Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato complex, with major differences in the genetic diversity between ecozones. Some isolates have been obtained since 1999, confirming the circulation of pathogenic strains in these ticks. Ixodes ricinus is considered to be a widespread species, however, in Portugal it is found only in a few habitats. Here we present preliminary results from a nationwide survey of questing I. ricinus (n = 4,001) and other Ixodidae (n = 1,534) in Portugal, initiated in 2001. The sampling points (so far 41) were selected using a Geographic Information System, according to the type of vegetation, accessibility and prevalence of human cases. The spatial and temporal of tick abundance and the infection of B. burgdorferi sensu lato in ticks were determined in selected areas. Ticks were examined for the presence of B. burgdorferi sensu lato by culturing (719 out of 4,001 I. ricinus), and direct PCR amplification of the 5S-23S intergenic spacer region (1,870 out of 5,535) followed by RFLP analysis, the reverse line blot assay and nucleotide sequencing of PCR amplicons. The most abundant tick genus was Rhipicephalus (53%), followed by Dermacentor (34%), I. ricinus and Hyalomma (7%, each). The Mafra and Grândola sites, where a more intensive study was carried out, were excellent habitats for I. ricinus. However, a clear difference of the prevalence of Borrelia infection and the genetic diversity of circulating spirochetes was observed in these two sites. Genotyping of all I. ricinus isolates revealed 5 B. garinii, 8 B. lusitaniae and 1 B. valaisiana strains, which were obtained for the first time in these regions along with a considerable percentage of tick-derived PCR amplicons. Two hard-tick species other than I. ricinus in Grândola were also B. lusitaniae positive, thus seeming to take part in the transmission cycle of Borrelia. The seasonal dynamics of I. ricinus in Mafra was bimodal, more pronounced in nymphs than in adults. The present findings indicate that B. burgdorferi sensu lato agents are differentially maintained in nature in local tick populations in different geographic areas across Portugal and that the risk of acquiring
Lyme borreliosis in certain areas of Portugal is higher than previously assumed.