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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Sep 22;273(1599):2327-33.

Host heterogeneity dominates West Nile virus transmission.

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Consortium for Conservation Medicine, New York, NY 10001, USA.


Heterogeneity in host populations and communities can have large effects on the transmission and control of a pathogen. In extreme cases, a few individuals give rise to the majority of secondary infections, which have been termed super spreading events. Here, we show that transmission of West Nile virus (WNV) is dominated by extreme heterogeneity in the host community, resulting in highly inflated reproductive ratios. A single relatively uncommon avian species, American robin (Turdus migratorius), appeared to be responsible for the majority of WNV-infectious mosquitoes and acted as the species equivalent of a super spreader for this multi-host pathogen. Crows were also highly preferred by mosquitoes at some sites, while house sparrows were significantly avoided. Nonetheless, due to their relative rarity, corvids (crows and jays) were relatively unimportant in WNV amplification. These results challenge current beliefs about the role of certain avian species in WNV amplification and demonstrate the importance of determining contact rates between vectors and host species to understand pathogen transmission dynamics.

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