Research Article

Density-dependent processes in the transmission of human onchocerciasis: relationship between microfilarial intake and mortality of the simuliid vector

M. G. Basáñeza1a3 c1, H. Townsona2, J. R. Williamsa3, H. Frontadoa4, N. J. Villamizara4 and R. M. Andersona3

a1 Department of Biology, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BB, UK

a2 Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Pembroke Place, Liverpool L3 5QA, UK

a3 Wellcome Centre for Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK

a4 Centra Amazonico para Investigation y Control de Enfermedades Tropicales, C.A.I.C.E.T. Puerto Ayacucho, Estado Amazonas, Venezuela


In order to construct an analytical model of onchocerciasis transmission, it is necessary to elucidate the functional relationships of the various population rate processes taking place within the human and vector hosts. Two previous papers have explored the evidence for density-dependent regulation in relation to microfilarial intake by, and larval development within, the Simulium host. This paper investigates the survivorship of wild-caught blackfly samples fed on subjects with different intensities of Onchocerca volvulus microfilarial infection. Analyses were based on data for Guatemalan S. ochraceum s.l. (possessing a well-developed cibarial armature), West African S. damnosum s.l. (forest species), and South Venezuelan S. guianense (the latter two lacking a toothed cibarium). The mean survival times of samples of the 3 species, kept under laboratory conditions, decreased as parasite intake increased, the rate of mortality being dependent on the fly’s age (measured as time post-feeding) and on the worm load acquired. An empirical, timedependent hazard function was fitted to observed death rates/fly/day which rose very shortly after engorgement, declined subsequently, and rose again throughout the extrinsic incubation period of the parasite. The parameters of this hazard model were all positively correlated with the density of microfilariae in the bloodmeal. Expressions of survivorship and life-expectancy as explicit functions of time post-feeding and mean parasite intake were derived. The average expectation of life at engorgement for uninfected flies in the laboratory was estimated to be around 1 week for both, armed and unarmed blackflies. Residual life-expectancy decreased with time post-feeding and microfilarial load in both categories of vectors. This decline (resulting from age- and parasite-dependent mortality rates) was much more pronounced in those species lacking a toothed fore-gut. Whilst a fraction of heavily infected S. ochraceum was able to survive the latent period of the parasite, being therefore potentially capable of transmitting the infection, equivalent worm loads in S. guianense resulted in a drastic reduction of the expectation of infective life. These results provide additional evidence to support the hypothesis that, in the case of intrinsically susceptible vectors, unarmed simuliids are more efficient at low microfilarial loads, when the transmission rate from human to vector host is higher, and parasite-induced fly mortality is negligible. The opposite takes place in armed flies, which perform poorly at low parasite burdens and better at heavier loads, with little parasite-induced vector death.

(Received August 07 1995)

(Revised January 24 1996)

(Revised March 28 1996)

(Accepted March 28 1996)


c1 Corresponding author. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS. Tel: 01865 281221; Fax: 01865 281245. E-mail: