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A continental risk assessment of West Nile virus under climate change

Authors

  • Ryan J. Harrigan,

    Corresponding author
    1. Center for Tropical Research, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA
    • correspondence: Ryan J. Harrigan, tel. +1 310 206 6234, fax +1 310 825 5446, e-mail: iluvsa@ucla.edu

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  • Henri A. Thomassen,

    1. Comparative Zoology, Institute of Evolution and Ecology, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
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  • Wolfgang Buermann,

    1. School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
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  • Thomas B. Smith

    1. Center for Tropical Research, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA
    2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA
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Abstract

Since first introduced to North America in 1999, West Nile virus (WNV) has spread rapidly across the continent, threatening wildlife populations and posing serious health risks to humans. While WNV incidence has been linked to environmental factors, particularly temperature and rainfall, little is known about how future climate change may affect the spread of the disease. Using available data on WNV infections in vectors and hosts collected from 2003–2011 and using a suite of 10 species distribution models, weighted according to their predictive performance, we modeled the incidence of WNV under current climate conditions at a continental scale. Models were found to accurately predict spatial patterns of WNV that were then used to examine how future climate may affect the spread of the disease. Predictions were accurate for cases of human WNV infection in the following year (2012), with areas reporting infections having significantly higher probability of presence as predicted by our models. Projected geographic distributions of WNV in North America under future climate for 2050 and 2080 show an expansion of suitable climate for the disease, driven by warmer temperatures and lower annual precipitation that will result in the exposure of new and naïve host populations to the virus with potentially serious consequences. Our risk assessment identifies current and future hotspots of West Nile virus where mitigation efforts should be focused and presents an important new approach for monitoring vector-borne disease under climate change.

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