Persistence of Bartonella spp. stealth pathogens: from subclinical infections to vasoproliferative tumor formation


Correspondence: Christoph Dehio, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Klingelbergstrasse 50/70, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland. Tel.: +41 61 267 21 40; fax: +41 61 267 21 18; e-mail:


Bartonella spp. are facultative intracellular bacteria that typically cause a long-lasting intraerythrocytic bacteremia in their mammalian reservoir hosts, thereby favoring transmission by blood-sucking arthropods. In most cases, natural reservoir host infections are subclinical and the relapsing intraerythrocytic bacteremia may last weeks, months, or even years. In this review, we will follow the infection cycle of Bartonella spp. in a reservoir host, which typically starts with an intradermal inoculation of bacteria that are superficially scratched into the skin from arthropod feces and terminates with the pathogen exit by the blood-sucking arthropod. The current knowledge of bacterial countermeasures against mammalian immune response will be presented for each critical step of the pathogenesis. The prevailing models of the still-enigmatic primary niche and the anatomical location where bacteria reside, persist, and are periodically seeded into the bloodstream to cause the typical relapsing Bartonella spp. bacteremia will also be critically discussed. The review will end up with a discussion of the ability of Bartonella spp., namely Bartonella henselae,Bartonella quintana, and Bartonella bacilliformis, to induce tumor-like vascular deformations in humans having compromised immune response such as in patients with AIDS.