The Promiscuous Human Flea

Female Pulex irritans, the human flea, from the Katja ZSM collection (CC3.0)
Female Pulex irritans, the human flea, from the Katja ZSM collection (CC3.0)

by Michelle Ziegler

The human flea seems like a misnomer today. We are not its current primary host, but that doesn’t mean that it once wasn’t our primary flea.  Pulex irritans  was first described by Carl Linnaeus as the “house flea” in 1758 (Krasnov 2012:4) and it is still found in homes in many parts of the world.

For the most part, the human flea is a nuisance, an irritant as its name implies. Except when it isn’t, when it occasionally transmits Yersinia pestis, the plague, to people. Pulex irritans has been  in homes with human plague cases from Arizona to Madagascar (Archibald & Kunitz, 1971; Ratovonjato et al, 2014). In 2006, Drancourt, Houhamdi, and Raoult argued that either the human flea or louse played a major role in human plague epidemics.

Human fleas have been found in the homes in several areas where plague occurs. P. irritans infected with Y. pestis were found on a dog in a home of a plague victim on Navajo land in Arizona in 1968. They also report knowledge  Y. pestis being isolated from  P. irritans fleas on dogs in the home of an infected child in Kayneta in 1968 (Archibald & Kunitz, 1971).   A recent survey of plague regions in Tanzania found 50% of the fleas in homes were P. irritans (Haule et al, 2013). A recent survey of fleas in Madagascar found that 98% of the fleas found inside control homes  in the control region of the study were Pulex irritans (Miarinjara et al, 2016). The fact that they did not find them in the homes within the area of the plague outbreak a month earlier may be due to extensive spraying of insecticide to end the epidemic. Human fleas are suspected of being the vectors for a variety of zoonotic diseases in Iran today (Rahbari, Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008).

The human flea, Pulex irritans, has had a very interesting and convoluted history. All of the Pulex fleas are thought to have evolved in South America, perhaps on guinea pigs or piccary . P. irritans is the only member of its genus  that has left the Americas.  It made it to Eurasia long before the “Columbian Exchange”.  So it crossed a land bridge at some point to begin spreading in Eurasia, and it need not have crossed on a human.  Ötzi the 5000 year old ice mummy from the Italian Alps yielded two human fleas from his  artifacts (Schedl, 2000). P. irritans has also been found Egypt from 3500 BC  (Bain 2004) and 1350-1323 BC (Panagiotakopulu, 2001) showing that it does well in warm, dry climates also. So not only where they present for the entire known period of plague but they have been specifically found in warm and cold regions. Pulex irritans has been found in floor debris of uncovered sites from Roman Britain (Kenward, 1998). They were common inhabitants of early medieval Irish homes (O’Sullivan, 2008).  They are fairly common finds in Norse Greenland settlements. Unfortunately flea surveys have not been done on most continental archaeological sites (or at least I haven’t found them).

So why is P. irritans called a promiscuous flea? It has nothing to do with sex! In this case promiscuous means that it will feed off of a wide variety of host species. It has a truly impressive host range beyond humans including pigs, dogs, cats, goats and sheep, cattle, chickens, porcupines, multiple species of foxes, wolves, coyotes,  golden jackel of Iran,  badgers, prairie dogs,  rabbits, wild cats,  and mice. There are undoubtably more species that could be added. It seems to be very common on foxes in North America and Europe. These are, of course, primarily predators of rodents.  Given its wide range of hosts, its distribution and frequency among hosts has probably fluctuated wildly due to environmental and biodiversity changes over the last millennia.

Such a wide host range also makes it a potential bridging vector, one that can move disease between a wild reservoir to a domestic space transmitting it to domestic rodents, pets, and humans. Importantly, bridging vectors work in both directions, meaning that it could be instrumental in developing a wildlife reservoir after a human epidemic in a new region.

General flea life cycle (CDC). Adults are only 5% of flea biomass.

flea-pyramid-1P. irritans has a life cycle that is well suited to thriving in buildings like houses, barns, sheds, and animal nests or dens. Most of their biomass is in the egg stage. Small white eggs are often laid on the host but almost always fall off on to the floor. They do particularly well on the floor of stables and animal sheds where fermenting manure and debris keeps the eggs warm and moist.  They also do well in human homes where it is usually warmer and more humid than outdoors. They breed all year around. The eggs will hatch into larvae that resemble maggots within 4-6 days. The very active larvae will feed on organic debris including feces of the adult flea and other animals. After three molts it will develop a cocooned pupae where it will undergo a metamorphosis to the adult flea. It can remain in the pupa for several months if necessary until the conditions are suitable. So although human fleas are usually not present in stables or sheds during the coldest months the pupa can easily span the winter to emerge as adults in the early spring. This may explain why they are often the most abundant in the spring when all of the pupae from the late fall and winter emerge. It is unclear if the lifecycle pauses inside a heated human home. A well fed adult can live up to 513 days and even starved can last 135 days (Krasnov, 2012: 54). It is unclear how long they live after being infected by Yersinia pestis (or other pathogens). Fleas only feed on blood as adults so this is their only phase that can be infected by Yersinia pestis.

Modern infestations of P. irritans in Greece and Iran can give a few insights into its disease ecology. Sheep and goats are consistently the most heavily infested animals with P. irritans in modern Iran and Greece. In parts of Iran, P. irritans is the most common flea captured from humans or domestic livestock: goats, sheep, cattle and chickens (Moemenbellah-Fard et al, 2014; Rahbari,  Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008;  Rafinejad et al, 2013). In some modern surveys, P. irritans is over 90% of the fleas collected in rural areas, found on sheep, goats, cattle, humans and chickens — “wherever the animal infestation was high the fleas easily transmitted to humans” (Rahbari et al, 2008:44). In Greece, Christodoulopoulos et al. (2006) made a very important observation:

“fleas accumulated in the goat environment with each successive generation leading to an increase in their number. This conclusion could be corroborated by the observation that the most successful flea control measure was the change of barn location with movement of the goats to another far away new-constructed barn.” (p. 142-143)

So even with modern insecticides, sheep dips, and building techniques available, the infestation of the building could not be controlled. This has implications for human housing. Observations of flea ecology in Iran back this up, albeit without addressing methods of eliminating infestations.

The Iranian reports discuss human flea bites more. Noting that men who worked with animals had a higher bite rate. Bites are primarily around the ankles and lower legs, often multiple bites in a row.  In Iran they noted that human reactions to the flea bites varied from highly allergic to no sensitivity at all (Rahbari, Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008). This is a difference in human immunology to the fleas and sensitivity is likely to alter the immune response to not only the bite but also bacteria in the bite. There is also likely to be heterogeneity in which humans and animals are bitten.

As we begin to take Pulex irritans more seriously as a plague vector, there is a lot of basic biology that needs to be done yet. How long can they survive infected? How does it effect their feeding behavior? Some studies showed that a small percentage of P. irritans can block, so what effect does that have on transmission in that small percent of fleas?


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