Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) is an important arbovirus, which is found across large parts of Eurasia and is considered to be a major health risk for humans. Like any other arbovirus, TBEV relies on complex interactions between vectors, reservoir hosts, and the environment for successful virus circulation. Hard ticks are the vectors for TBEV, transmitting the virus to a variety of animals. The importance of these animals in the lifecycle of TBEV is still up for debate. Large woodland animals seem to have a positive influence on virus circulation by providing a food source for adult ticks; birds are suspected to play a role in virus distribution. Bank voles and yellow-necked mice are often referred to as classical virus reservoirs, but this statement lacks strong evidence supporting their highlighted role. Other small mammals (e.g., insectivores) may also play a crucial role in virus transmission, not to mention the absence of any suspected reservoir host for non-European endemic regions. Theories highlighting the importance of the co-feeding transmission route go as far as naming ticks themselves as the true reservoir for TBEV, and mammalian hosts as a mere bridge for transmission. A deeper insight into the virus reservoir could lead to a better understanding of the development of endemic regions. The spatial distribution of TBEV is constricted to certain areas, forming natural foci that can be restricted to sizes of merely 500 square meters. The limiting factors for their occurrence are largely unknown, but a possible influence of reservoir hosts on the distribution pattern of TBE is discussed. This review aims to give an overview of the multiple factors influencing the TBEV transmission cycle, focusing on the role of virus reservoirs, and highlights the questions that are waiting to be further explored.
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