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Decelerating spread of West Nile virus by percolation in a heterogeneous urban landscape.

Abstract

Vector-borne diseases are emerging and re-emerging in urban environments throughout the world, presenting an increasing challenge to human health and a major obstacle to development. Currently, more than half of the global population is concentrated in urban environments, which are highly heterogeneous in the extent, degree, and distribution of environmental modifications. Because the prevalence of vector-borne pathogens is so closely coupled to the ecologies of vector and host species, this heterogeneity has the potential to significantly alter the dynamical systems through which pathogens propagate, and also thereby affect the epidemiological patterns of disease at multiple spatial scales. One such pattern is the speed of spread. Whereas standard models hold that pathogens spread as waves with constant or increasing speed, we hypothesized that heterogeneity in urban environments would cause decelerating travelling waves in incipient epidemics. To test this hypothesis, we analysed data on the spread of West Nile virus (WNV) in New York City (NYC), the 1999 epicentre of the North American pandemic, during annual epizootics from 2000-2008. These data show evidence of deceleration in all years studied, consistent with our hypothesis. To further explain these patterns, we developed a spatial model for vector-borne disease transmission in a heterogeneous environment. An emergent property of this model is that deceleration occurs only in the vicinity of a critical point. Geostatistical analysis suggests that NYC may be on the edge of this criticality. Together, these analyses provide the first evidence for the endogenous generation of decelerating travelling waves in an emerging infectious disease. Since the reported deceleration results from the heterogeneity of the environment through which the pathogen percolates, our findings suggest that targeting control at key sites could efficiently prevent pathogen spread to remote susceptible areas or even halt epidemics.

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