Analytical methods for quantifying environmental connectivity for the control and surveillance of infectious disease spread.


The sustained transmission and spread of environmentally mediated infectious diseases is governed in part by the dispersal of parasites, disease vectors and intermediate hosts between sites of transmission. Functional geospatial models can be used to quantify and predict the degree to which environmental features facilitate or limit connectivity between target populations, yet typical models are limited in their geographical and analytical approach, providing simplistic, global measures of connectivity and lacking methods to assess the epidemiological implications of fine-scale heterogeneous landscapes. Here, functional spatial models are applied to problems of surveillance and control of the parasitic blood fluke Schistosoma japonicum and its intermediate snail host Oncomelania haupensis in western China. We advance functional connectivity methods by providing an analytical framework to (i) identify nodes of transmission where the degree of connectedness to other villages, and thus the potential for disease spread, is higher than is estimated using Euclidean distance alone and (ii) (re)organize transmission sites into disease surveillance units based on second-order relationships among nodes using non-Euclidean distance measures, termed effective geographical distance (EGD). Functional environmental models are parametrized using ecological information on the target organisms, and pair-wise distributions of inter-node EGD are estimated. A Monte Carlo rank product analysis is presented to identify nearby nodes under alternative distance models. Nodes are then iteratively embedded into EGD space and clustered using a k-means algorithm to group villages into ecologically meaningful surveillance groups. A consensus clustering approach is taken to derive the most stable cluster structure. The results indicate that novel relationships between nodes are revealed when non-Euclidean, ecologically determined distance measures are used to quantify connectivity in heterogeneous landscapes. These connections are not evident when analysing nodes in Euclidean space, and thus surveillance and control activities planned using Euclidean distance measures may be suboptimal. The methods developed here provide a quantitative framework for assessing the effectiveness of ecologically grounded surveillance systems and of control and prevention strategies for environmentally mediated diseases.

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