Background: Schistosoma mansoni is a parasite of profound medical importance. Current control focusses on mass praziquantel (PZQ) treatment of populations in endemic areas, termed Preventative Chemotherapy (PC). Large-scale PC programmes exert prolonged selection pressures on parasites with the potential for, direct and/or indirect, emergence of drug resistance. Molecular methods can help monitor genetic changes of schistosome populations over time and in response to drug treatment, as well as estimate adult worm burdens through parentage analysis. Furthermore, methods such as in vitro drug sensitivity assays help phenotype in vivo parasite genotypic drug efficacy.
Methods: We conducted combined in vitro PZQ efficacy testing with population genetic analyses of S. mansoni collected from children from two schools in 2010, five years after the introduction of a National Control Programme. Children at one school had received four annual PZQ treatments and the other school had received two mass treatments in total. We compared genetic differentiation, indices of genetic diversity, and estimated adult worm burden from parasites collected in 2010 with samples collected in 2005 (before the control programme began) and in 2006 (six months after the first PZQ treatment). Using 2010 larval samples, we also compared the genetic similarity of those with high and low in vitro sensitivity to PZQ.
Results: We demonstrated that there were individual parasites with reduced PZQ susceptibility in the 2010 collections, as evidenced by our in vitro larval behavioural phenotypic assay. There was no evidence, however, that miracidia showing phenotypically reduced susceptibility clustered together genetically. Molecular analysis also demonstrated a significant reduction of adult worm load over time, despite little evidence of reduction in parasite infection intensity, as measured by egg output. Genetic diversity of infections did not reduce over time, despite changes in the genetic composition of the parasite populations.
Conclusions: Genotypic and phenotypic monitoring did not indicate a selective sweep, as may be expected if PZQ treatment was selecting a small number of related "resistant" parasites, but there was evidence of genetic changes at the population level over time. Genetic data were used to estimate adult worm burdens, which unlike parasite infection intensity, showed reductions over time, suggesting the relaxation of negative density-dependent constraints on parasite fecundity with PZQ treatment. We thereby demonstrated that density-dependence in schistosome populations may complicate evaluation and monitoring of control programmes.