Multi-scale model of epidemic fade-out: Will local extirpation events inhibit the spread of white-nose syndrome?


White-nose syndrome (WNS) is an emerging infectious disease that has resulted in severe declines of its hibernating bat hosts in North America. The ongoing epidemic of white-nose syndrome is a multi-scale phenomenon it causes hibernaculum-level extirpations, while simultaneously spreading over larger spatial scales. We investigate a neglected topic in ecological epidemiology: how local pathogen-driven extirpations impact large-scale pathogen spread. Previous studies have identified risk factors for propagation of WNS over hibernaculum and landscape scales but none of these have tested the hypothesis that separation of spatial scales and disease-induced mortality at the hibernaculum level might slow or halt its spread. To test this hypothesis, we developed a mechanistic multi-scale model parameterized using white-nose syndrome.county and site incidence data that connects hibernaculum-level susceptible-infectious-removed (SIR) epidemiology to the county-scale contagion process. Our key result is that hibernaculum-level extirpations will not inhibit county-scale spread of WNS. We show that over 80% of counties of the contiguous USA are likely to become infected before the current epidemic is over and that geometry of habitat connectivity is such that host refuges are exceedingly rare. The macroscale spatiotemporal infection pattern that emerges from local SIR epidemiological processes falls within a narrow spectrum of possible outcomes, suggesting that recolonization, rescue effects, and multi-host complexities at local scales are not important to forward propagation of WNS at large spatial scales. If effective control measures are not implemented, precipitous declines in bat populations are likely, particularly in cave-dense regions that constitute the main geographic corridors of the USA, a serious concern for bat conservation.

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