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An Ecological Assessment of the Pandemic Threat of Zika Virus

by / Tuesday, 30 August 2016 / Published in Faculty Research in Latin America, North America, Research

UC BERKELEY AUTHOR: Colin J. Carlson

DATE OF PUBLICATION: August 2016

REGION: The Americas

REFERENCE: Carlson CJ, Dougherty ER, Getz W. An Ecological Assessment of the Pandemic Threat of Zika Virus. Johansson MA, ed. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 2016;10(8):e0004968. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0004968.

SUMMARY/ABSTRACT: The current outbreak of Zika virus poses a severe threat to human health. While the range of the virus has been cataloged growing slowly over the last 50 years, the recent explosive expansion in the Americas indicates that the full potential distribution of Zika remains uncertain. Moreover, many studies rely on its similarity to dengue fever, a phylogenetically closely related disease of unknown ecological comparability. Here we compile a comprehensive spatially-explicit occurrence dataset from Zika viral surveillance and serological surveys based in its native range, and construct ecological niche models to test basic hypotheses about its spread and potential establishment. The hypothesis that the outbreak of cases in Mexico and North America are anomalous and outside the native ecological niche of the disease, and may be linked to either genetic shifts between strains, or El Nino or similar climatic events, remains plausible at this time. Comparison of the Zika niche against the known distribution of dengue fever suggests that Zika is more constrained by the seasonality of precipitation and diurnal temperature fluctuations, likely confining autochthonous non-sexual transmission to the tropics without significant evolutionary change. Projecting the range of the diseases in conjunction with three major vector species (Aedes africanus, Ae. aegypti, and Ae. albopictus) that transmit the pathogens, under climate change, suggests that Zika has potential for northward expansion; but, based on current knowledge, our models indicate Zika is unlikely to fill the full range its vectors occupy, and public fear of a vector-borne Zika epidemic in the mainland United States is potentially informed by biased or limited scientific knowledge. With recent sexual transmission of the virus globally, we caution that our results only apply to the vector-borne transmission route of the pathogen, and while the threat of a mosquito-carried Zika pandemic may be overstated in the media, other transmission modes of the virus may emerge and facilitate naturalization worldwide.

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