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Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Mar 7;279(1730):925-33. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1282. Epub 2011 Aug 17.

Vector host-feeding preferences drive transmission of multi-host pathogens: West Nile virus as a model system.

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Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


Seasonal epizootics of vector-borne pathogens infecting multiple species are ecologically complex and difficult to forecast. Pathogen transmission potential within the host community is determined by the relative abilities of host species to maintain and transmit the pathogen and by ecological factors influencing contact rates between hosts and vectors. Increasing evidence of strong feeding preferences by a number of vectors suggests that the host community experienced by the pathogen may be very different from the local host community. We developed an empirically informed transmission model for West Nile virus (WNV) in four sites using one vector species (Culex pipiens) and preferred and non-preferred avian hosts. We measured strong feeding preferences for American robins (Turdus migratorius) by Cx. pipiens, quantified as the proportion of Cx. pipiens blood meals from robins in relation to their abundance (feeding index). The model accurately predicted WNV prevalence in Cx. pipiens at three of four sites. Sensitivity analysis revealed feeding preference was the most influential parameter on intensity and timing of peak WNV infection in Cx. pipiens and a threshold feeding index for transmission was identified. Our findings indicate host preference-induced contact heterogeneity is a key mediator of vector-borne pathogen epizootics in multi-species host communities, and should be incorporated into multi-host transmission models.

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