For almost a century, the oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis (Rothschild) (Siphonaptera: Pulicidae), was thought to be the most efficient vector of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis (Yersin). Approximately 2 wk after consuming an infectious bloodmeal, a blockage often forms in the flea’s proventriculus, which forces the flea to increase its biting frequency and consequently increases the likelihood of transmission. However, if fleas remain blocked and continue to feed, they usually die within 5 d of blocking, resulting in a short infectious window. Despite observations of X. cheopis transmitting Y. pestis shortly after pathogen acquisition, early-phase transmission (e.g., transmission 1–4 d postinfection [p.i.]) by unblocked fleas was viewed as anomalous and thought to occur only by mass action. We used an artificial feeding system to infect colony-reared X. cheopis with a fully virulent strain of Y. pestis, and we evaluated transmission efficiency 1–4 d p.i. We demonstrate 1) that a single infected and unblocked X. cheopis can infect a susceptible host as early as 1 d p.i., 2) the number of fleas per host required for unblocked fleas to drive a plague epizootic by early-phase transmission is within the flea infestation range observed in nature, and 3) early-phase transmission by unblocked fleas in the current study was at least as efficient as transmission by blocked fleas in a previously published study using the same colony of fleas and same bacterial strain. Furthermore, transmission efficiency seemed to remain constant until block formation, resulting in an infectious period considerably longer than previously thought.
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Vol. 44 • No. 4