June 15, 2015
1 min read

Models predict hotspots for future zoonotic disease

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Researchers have determined that Kansas and Nebraska may join China, Kazakhstan and parts of the Middle East as potential hotspots for future novel zoonotic disease, according to a study published in PNAS.

“Historically, emerging infectious diseases have been dealt with reactively, with efforts focused on containing outbreaks after they’ve spread,” Barbara A. Han, PhD, disease ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, New York, said in a press release. “We were interested in how machine learning could inform early warning surveillance by revealing the distribution of rodent species that are effective disease reservoirs.”

Han and colleagues developed models that consider 86 variables to predict which of the 2,277 existing rodent species will serve as zoonotic disease carriers in the future and where they are likely to spread disease — including novel pathogens. While acknowledging in the study that “the process of disease emergence from wild reservoirs into human hosts is complex,” Han and colleagues were able to predict zoonotic reservoir status with approximately 90% accuracy and identified over 50 potentially new zoonotic reservoir species.

The researchers wrote that hotspots for novel rodent reservoirs are likely to span the globe in areas with significant mammal diversity, middle-income or better economies, and with climates that span from arctic to tropical. This includes many areas where today’s human emerging infectious diseases most frequently occur and where rodent-borne diseases lead to the majority of human outbreaks. One of these predicted hotspots was the Midwestern United States.

“Results equip us with a watch list of high-risk rodent species whose intrinsic traits make them effective at carrying infections transmissible to people. Such a list is increasingly important given accelerating rates of environmental change,” Han said in the release. “Turning our predictions into preventative measures will require collaboration with experts on the ground. A start would be to look at the newly predicted rodent reservoirs and assess which have increasing contact with people through activities like urbanization, agricultural and hunting practices, and displacement from political or climate instability.” – by David Jwanier

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.