Forest conservation and restoration to reduce human diarrheal disease

In the NCEAS SNAPP Ecological Levers for Health working group, we’re collecting examples of local or regional interventions that can have direct, measurable benefits for human health (via reduced infectious disease) AND the environment – win–win solutions. The case studies that we’ve collected thus far are so cool that we just can’t wait to share them! In September, I shared a story about vulture conservation and rabies. This week, I’ll tell you about plants and diarrheal disease.

Two years ago, I adopted a tiny blue Aussie puppy: a wild, brilliant beast with a thirst for adventure… and water. I mean he really likes water – jumping in it, biting it, blowing bubbles in it, fishing sticks out of it, etc. And the dirtier that water is, the better. So I set my puppy loose at the duck pond at our local gem of a dog park, where I had seen my previous dog and dozens of other dogs safely drink the water. Days later, my precious puppy developed severe diarrhea, and just hours after the onset of his symptoms, he became terrifyingly lethargic. The enteric pathogens that he had guzzled in the pond water might have killed him if we had not immediately sought out veterinary care. But fortunately, antibiotics and rehydration allowed Carrot to make a full recovery, and he grew up to be the healthy mud monster pictured below. From that experience, I re-learned an important lesson from disease ecology: pathogens often have minimal effects on adult animals, which have developed resistance/immunity during prior exposure, but the same pathogens can be deadly for juveniles during their first exposure.


This principle doesn’t just apply to puppies: diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of global childhood mortality for children under five years old. That’s hundreds of thousands of children dying every year because they did normal childhood things – like eating, drinking, and playing outside – and became infected by waterborne or foodborne pathogens like rotaviruses, Vibrio cholerae, and Salmonella. Many more children become infected by these pathogens and survive their illnesses, only to experience lasting physiological impacts. For instance, diarrhea leads to malnourishment, and malnourishment increases a child’s risk of future infection and diarrhea, creating a vicious cycle of ill health that can retard physical and mental development.

How can we remedy this huge global burden of childhood morbidity and mortality? The good news is that we already have substantially reduced the global impacts of childhood diarrheal disease by (1) improving hygiene and sanitation to reduce peoples’ exposure to the pathogens and (2) using oral rehydration therapy to treat children who are suffering from diarrhea, so that they do not die from dehydration. However, millions of people still lack access to clean water resources and quality healthcare, and an unthinkable number of children are still dying each year, and thus there is still much to do. Today, I want to broaden the scope of potential solutions: are there ecological solutions that can help reduce human exposure to enteric pathogens as a complement to current public health efforts?

But before we discuss specific ecological solutions, it’s worth discussing how these pathogens enter and persist in water sources in the first place. In some cases, the pathogens are pumped into public water sources directly from sewage pipes or human bodies (e.g., people swimming and defecating at water access points). In other cases, the pathogens reach public water sources via runoff from the environment after they’ve been excreted by humans and/or animals. When these pathogens reach a waterbody, they do not necessarily find and infect a human. For instance, if the pathogen is buried under the sediment in a stream, degraded by sunlight, consumed by microorganisms, or destroyed by plant biocides, it will never reach a human host. So ideally, ecological solutions will reduce the number of pathogens reaching waterbodies and/or increase pathogen death rates in those waterbodies. With this in mind, let’s talk about one class of ecological solutions for waterborne enteric pathogens: can plants be a win–win solution for conservation and human health?


In my freshmen year as an undergrad, my favorite professor made us “draw and describe, in excruciating detail, the difference between an urban and rural hydrograph.” I received full marks, so let’s assume I’m an expert: in urbanized areas with lots of buildings and paved, impervious surfaces, stormwater reaches streams and rivers quickly, whereas in rural areas with lots of trees and permeable soil, stormwater reaches streams and rivers relatively slowly (see below). And of course, it isn’t just water that reaches those streams and rivers. In urban environments, pollutants and pathogens within the stormwater also make it to downstream waterbodies faster, meaning that fewer pathogens die before reaching water sources where they can encounter and infect people. Therefore, human-caused hydrological changes should affect human disease burdens.


And we’re seeing that. For instance, in a massive study of 300,000 children in 35 nations, deforestation upstream from a child’s house was found to be strong predictor of whether the child had high risk of diarrheal disease, presumably because many pathogens were entering the waterbodies upstream (Herrera et al. 2017). (But this was only true for the poor children – the wealthier children living in cities probably had better access to sanitation infrastructure.) Similarly, in Brazil, children living near protected forests were less likely to experience diarrheal disease (Bauch et al. 2015). These large-scale correlational studies suggest that protecting forests might be a win–win solution for conserving biodiversity and reducing childhood diarrhea!

Of course, many forests have already been cut down, so it’s too late to preserve them for human health. In those cases, reforestation/restoration might be a win–win solution. For instance, Herrera et al. (2017) predicted that increasing upstream forest cover by 30% would reduce childhood diarrheal risk as much as improved sanitation and hygiene!

5 RickettsFig

But re-forestation is a big undertaking, and as far as I know, no one has experimentally evaluated the effects of re-forestation on human disease yet. An easier/faster intervention to slow the rate that pathogens and other pollutants reach streams and rivers might be replanting vegetation just within riparian buffers. It’s still unclear whether replanting riparian vegetation can reduce human infection, but in some studies, the number of enteric pathogens and/or fecal indicator bacteria within streams has decreased after riparian buffers were restored, which suggests that human infectious risk would be reduced by stream-side vegetation. This remains an important avenue for future research.

So, preserving or restoring forests and/or riparian buffers can reduce the number of pathogens reaching waterbodies and potentially reduce human infection, but can plants also reduce the number of pathogens that reach human hosts after reaching waterbodies? Potentially! For instance, at Indonesian islands without wastewater treatment systems, there are fewer human bacterial pathogens in seagrass meadows than in nearshore waters that lack seagrass meadows (Lamb et al. 2017). Furthermore, disease burdens in corals are lower near seagrass meadows, too, suggesting that preserving or restoring seagrass meadows could be a win–win for human health and conservation. This is a great correlational study, but is there any experimental evidence that aquatic/marine plants reduce environmental pathogen loads or human disease burdens?

Yep! You may have seen something similar to the photograph below in a town near you. It’s a constructed wetland. Specifically, it’s the Dominguez Gap Wetland, which was created to treat stormwater before it reached the LA River and then the Pacific Ocean. Constructed wetlands like this one are typically designed to filter heavy metals, excess nitrogen and phosphorous, and other chemical pollutants from stormwater. But they can also remove viruses, bacteria, protozoans, and other pathogens from runoff waters. For instance, by forcing viruses to hang out in the slow-flowing water for a while, the wetlands ensure that many viruses die from UV exposure long before they reach downstream waterbodies. Several studies have shown that constructed wetlands successfully reduce environmental pathogen loads, and now we need studies that link constructed wetlands and human disease risk.


However, there are many varieties of constructed wetlands – they vary in retention time, turbidity, whether they contain plants or not, whether there is subsurface or surface water flow, etc. And some designs are better at removing pathogens from stormwater than others. Furthermore, even really efficient constructed wetlands might fail to reduce pathogen loads to levels that are safe for human use, depending on how many pathogens are entering the environment. Therefore, if we want to use constructed wetlands to reduce human exposure to enteric pathogens, we need to design them carefully.

So there you have it! “Plants” – or environmental characteristics associated with plants – can reduce the number of human pathogens that reach waterbodies and pathogen survival time within waterbodies. And lower pathogen loads in waterbodies presumably reduce human disease, especially childhood diarrheal risk. As far as I can tell, no one is currently using forest protection/restoration or constructed wetlands on a large scale to try to prevent childhood diarrhea, but “plants” could be “ecological levers for health” that advance both conservation and human health goals.

If you know of any existing, planned, or in-progress forest protection, reforestation, or constructed wetland interventions aimed at reducing human diarrheal diseases, please let me know! And if you can think of any other win–win solutions for conservation and human health, we’d love to hear about them.


Bauch, Simone C., Anna M. Birkenbach, Subhrendu K. Pattanayak, and Erin O. Sills. “Public Health Impacts of Ecosystem Change in the Brazilian Amazon.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 24 (June 16, 2015): 7414–19.

Collins, Rob, Malcolm Mcleod, Mike Hedley, Andrea Donnison, Murray Close, James Hanly, Dave Horne, et al. “Best Management Practices to Mitigate Faecal Contamination by Livestock of New Zealand Waters.” New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research 50, no. 2 (June 1, 2007): 267–78.

Daigneault, Adam J., Florian V. Eppink, and William G. Lee. “A National Riparian Restoration Programme in New Zealand: Is It Value for Money?” Journal of Environmental Management 187 (February 1, 2017): 166–77.

Falabi, J. A., C. P. Gerba, and M. M. Karpiscak. “Giardia and Cryptosporidium Removal from Waste-Water by a Duckweed (Lemna Gibba L.) Covered Pond.” Letters in Applied Microbiology 34, no. 5 (2002): 384–87.

Graczyk, Thaddeus K., Frances E. Lucy, Leena Tamang, Yessika Mashinski, Michael A. Broaders, Michelle Connolly, and Hui-Wen A. Cheng. “Propagation of Human Enteropathogens in Constructed Horizontal Wetlands Used for Tertiary Wastewater Treatment.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 75, no. 13 (July 1, 2009): 4531–38.

Hench, Keith R., Gary K. Bissonnette, Alan J. Sexstone, Jerry G. Coleman, Keith Garbutt, and Jeffrey G. Skousen. “Fate of Physical, Chemical, and Microbial Contaminants in Domestic Wastewater Following Treatment by Small Constructed Wetlands.” Water Research 37, no. 4 (February 1, 2003): 921–27.

Herrera, Diego, Alicia Ellis, Brendan Fisher, Christopher D. Golden, Kiersten Johnson, Mark Mulligan, Alexander Pfaff, Timothy Treuer, and Taylor H. Ricketts. “Upstream Watershed Condition Predicts Rural Children’s Health across 35 Developing Countries.” Nature Communications 8, no. 1 (October 9, 2017): 811.

Johnson, Kiersten B., Anila Jacob, and Molly E. Brown. “Forest Cover Associated with Improved Child Health and Nutrition: Evidence from the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey and Satellite Data.” Global Health, Science and Practice 1, no. 2 (August 2013): 237–48.

Lamb, Joleah B., Jeroen A. J. M. van de Water, David G. Bourne, Craig Altier, Margaux Y. Hein, Evan A. Fiorenza, Nur Abu, Jamaluddin Jompa, and C. Drew Harvell. “Seagrass Ecosystems Reduce Exposure to Bacterial Pathogens of Humans, Fishes, and Invertebrates.” Science 355, no. 6326 (February 17, 2017): 731–33.

Maseyk, Fleur J. F., Estelle J. Dominati, Toni White, and Alec D. Mackay. “Farmer Perspectives of the On-Farm and off-Farm Pros and Cons of Planted Multifunctional Riparian Margins.” Land Use Policy 61 (February 1, 2017): 160–70.

Pattanayak, Subhrendu K., and Kelly J. Wendland. “Nature’s Care: Diarrhea, Watershed Protection, and Biodiversity Conservation in Flores, Indonesia.” Biodiversity and Conservation 16, no. 10 (September 1, 2007): 2801–19.

Quiñónez-Díaz, M. J., M. M. Karpiscak, E. D. Ellman, and C. P. Gerba. “Removal of Pathogenic and Indicator Microorganisms by a Constructed Wetland Receiving Untreated Domestic Wastewater.” Journal of Environmental Science and Health. Part A, Toxic/Hazardous Substances & Environmental Engineering 36, no. 7 (2001): 1311–20.

Russell, Richard C. “Constructed Wetlands and Mosquitoes: Health Hazards and Management Options—An Australian Perspective.” Ecological Engineering 12, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 107–24.

Vymazal, Jan. “Removal of Enteric Bacteria in Constructed Treatment Wetlands with Emergent Macrophytes: A Review.” Journal of Environmental Science and Health. Part A, Toxic/Hazardous Substances & Environmental Engineering 40, no. 6–7 (2005): 1355–67.

Wu, Shubiao, Pedro N. Carvalho, Jochen A. Müller, Valsa Remony Manoj, and Renjie Dong. “Sanitation in Constructed Wetlands: A Review on the Removal of Human Pathogens and Fecal Indicators.” The Science of the Total Environment 541 (January 15, 2016): 8–22.

Other photo credits from our Tweets:

  1. Universal Children’s Day
  2. Water use art

What is a vector?

Precise definitions are important in science, because I said so (and other better reasons). In parasite ecology, the tricky definitions that students often mix up are things like parasite versus parasitoid and microparasite versus macroparasite. In fact, at least 20 visitors per week happen upon this blog because they want look up one of those terms.

But it isn’t just students and the general public who struggle with tricky definitions in parasite ecology. Within the field, we can’t even agree on what to call our discipline! (Disease ecology? Parasitology? Epidemiology?) And it has recently come to my attention that a term that I thought had bullet-proof definition is somewhat controversial among parasite ecologists.

In an awesome special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B that just came out this month, there was a thought-provoking article entitled, “What is a vector?” The idea for the article came from a working group of the British Ecological Society’s ‘Parasites & Pathogens’ Special Interest Group, where participants unexpectedly found that they did not all use the same definition of “vector.” The article contained a whole list of possible definitions that the authors found in the literature, including this subset, which I have re-numbered for my own purposes:

Definition 1A: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms of a different species.”

Definition 1B: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) or inanimate object (i.e., fomite) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms.”

Definition 2: “Any organism that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.”

Definition 3A: “Hosts that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

Definition 3B: “Blood-feeding arthropods such as mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies, tsetse flies and biting midges that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

I couldn’t believe that parasite ecologists differed so much with their working definitions, so I put them into a poll, and then I asked you guys to tell me which definitions you use. (Thanks for your participation!) To my great surprise, your answers were all over the place! No one really used Definition 2 (the “anthropocentric” definition), but all of the other definitions received some support. As of 21 March, the most popular definition was 1A, and 1A+B were more popular than 3A+B.

Wilson et al. (2017) do a great job of discussing the pros and cons of each definition, and they also take a stab at a possible mathematical definition (the “sequential” definition), so I’d recommend giving their paper a read for a lot more coverage than you’re going to get here. I’m just going to cover two points that were surprising to me.

First surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1B over 1A, because I don’t like including fomites in the definition of a vector. My primary reason for preferring IA is that we already have a term for inanimate objects that transmit infectious agents (i.e., fomites). Wilson et al. (2017) provide a good discussion on the utility of thinking about some fomites (e.g., drug needles) in pseudo-biological terms that would normally apply to vectors. But I think that I’d still prefer to call things like needles “fomites,” even if it’s helpful to think of their parallels with living vectors.

Second surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1A+B to 3A+B. As Wilson et al. (2017) discuss, the 1A+B definitions are broad; for instance, the wording suggests that we include intermediate hosts (i.e., snails infected by trematodes) as vectors! It also suggests that any host capable of interspecific transmission could be a vector. 

In the end,Wilson et al. (2017) suggested that parasite ecologists think carefully about their definitions of the term “vector,” and then they scored a closing home run with, “all vector definitions are wrong, but some are (we hope) useful.” WOMP WOMP.

Give the paper a read, and share your thoughts in the comments!


Wilson, A. J., E. R. Morgan, M. Booth, R. Norman, S. E. Perkins, H. C. Hauffe, N. Mideo, J. Antonovics, H. McCallum, and A. Fenton. 2017. What is a vector? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372:20160085.

Food provisioning and wildlife disease dynamics

Humans change environments in many different ways, including accidentally or purposefully provisioning wildlife with novel food resources. For example, bird feeders, salt licks, ecotourism feeding stations, and dumpsters all provide concentrated food resources for wildlife. Does this food provisioning influence disease dynamics?

First, let’s consider how food provisioning might influence disease dynamics for parasites with any given transmission mode. The big rates that we care about here are the transmission rate (a function of contact rate and transmission success), birth and death rates, and immigration and emigration rates. If resource provisioning increases host population density via increased aggregation of individuals, increased birth rates or decreased death rates, and/or increased immigration or decreased emigration rates, then transmission rates for pathogens with direct contact density-dependent transmission should increase. In the same scenarios, pathogens with frequency-dependent transmission may not be affected by provisioning, or transmission rates may even decline if high birth rates dilute the prevalence of infection in the population. For pathogens that are transmitted via environmental stages, environmental stages may build up at resource provisioning sites when high densities of animals hang out there for long periods, increasing transmission. For pathogens that are transmitted via intermediate hosts, transmission may be reduced if hosts switch from foraging on intermediate hosts to foraging on human-provided resources.

Factors besides transmission mode might also be important. For instance, regardless of transmission mode, if resource provisioning increases host resistance – for instance, by increasing body condition – then transmission rates should decrease. Conversely, if resource provisioning decreases host resistance – for instance, if the provisioned food is nutritionally poor or there is high competition at sites with provisioning and body condition is reduced – then transmission rates should increase. Resource provisioning might also alter host tolerance to infection, so that hosts aren’t as sick but continue shedding infectious agents longer than they would if they didn’t have supplemental resources.

Ok, I think that covers most of the possibilities. Back to our question: does food provisioning influence disease dynamics? Yes, sometimes. Most of the mechanisms listed above were supported by at least one study in a recent review by Becker et al. (2015). Based on the long, messy list above, you can probably guess that sometimes food provisioning increases transmission, sometimes it decreases transmission, and sometimes nothing notable happens. The big take-home message is that there isn’t just one universal outcome when we provision wildlife with supplemental resources, and it’s important that we conduct more and better studies aimed at elucidating the epidemiological mechanisms underlying the observed relationships. Cool stuff!

Have you read this post about house finch conjunctivitis yet?



Becker, D.J., D.G. Streicker, and S. Altizer. 2015. Linking anthropogenic resources to wildlife–pathogen dynamics: a review and meta-analysis. Ecology Letters 18: 483–495.

Refugia, connectivity, and transmission

When populations become small, their probability of extinction typically goes up, because demographic and environmental stochasticity are more likely to set the population on an irreversible decline. However, when one population goes locally extinct, a species is not necessarily lost; the area might be re-colonized by migrants from a different population later, if other populations exist. Metapopulation theory tells us that a balance between population extinctions and re-colonizations in heterogeneous patches that are linked by dispersal can allow a species to persist regionally, even when it goes extinct locally.

What happens when we add infectious diseases into our host metapopulation model? Connectivity might be detrimental to regional persistence when infectious diseases are introduced, because pathogens in one population can invade the other populations via host dispersal, whereas pathogens are limited to a single population when populations aren’t linked via dispersal. Or…not?

Heard et al. (2015) recently published a quite complicated and fancy metapopulation model that suggests that connectivity actually increases the probability of metapopulation persistence in an Australian frog species endangered by the fungal pathogen (Bd), which causes the disease chytridiomycosis. From survey work, they knew that the prevalence of Bd in growling glass frogs was lower in warm and/or salty wetlands. They could also show that the probability of a local extinction in any given frog population increased with the prevalence of Bd in the frog population. By linking local extinction risk to Bd prevalence and microclimate, they could create metapopulation models using known dispersal distances for the growling glass frog, and they could run simulations regarding metapopulation persistence under scenarios where they eliminated frog dispersal among populations or not. They had two important findings. First, if you ignore the fact that Bd prevalence varies with microclimate, the probability of metapopulation persistance is predicted to be much lower than it actually is. The warm and/or salty wetlands act as important low Bd prevalence frog population refugia that can seed the other populations in a metapopulation when they go locally extinct, such that microclimate variability increases persistence. Second, “re-seeding” can only happen if dispersal occurs among populations, so connectivity increases metapopulation persistence in this system.

One lingering question is whether this system is a good example of the role of connectivity in all host metapopulations plagued by infectious diseases. Heard et al. (2015) argue that Bd is basically everywhere already – and there to stay – because it can be maintained in both environmental reservoirs and reservoir hosts. Therefore, they suggest that for growling glass frogs, dispersal of hosts among populations doesn’t really play a role in disease dynamics. In systems where the pathogen is not yet widespread (i.e., regions currently being invaded), where reservoirs are less likely to provide long-term maintenance of the pathogen, or where dispersal of reservoir hosts is particularly important to pathogen spread, host dispersal could start to have detrimental impacts on long-term metapopulation persistence. This is cool stuff that deserves more attention!


Heard, G.W., C.D. Thomas, J.A. Hodgson, M.P. Scroggie, D.S. Ramsey, and N. Clemann. 2015. Refugia and connectivity sustain amphibian metapopulations afflicted by disease. Ecology Letters, 18: 853–863.


Dilution Effect Debate Continues!

Admit it, the title of this post made you cringe! Or it set off a little fuse in your brain and you’re just seconds away from your head exploding. Take a zen moment, and then continue reading for some interesting science.

If you don’t know what the dilution effect hypothesis is or why disease ecologists are debating the hypothesis, you might want to check out some of my previous posts before reading this one. But briefly: scientists have found a negative relationship between host biodiversity and the risk of infection to particular host species in some disease systems in some areas. That negative relationship is called the “dilution effect,” because host biodiversity is “diluting” parasite transmission. The debates have arisen because disease ecologists can’t agree on is how often the dilution effect occurs in natural systems: always, sometimes, or never? I’ve described the core arguments on both sides of the debate in this post.

Meta-analyses are one way to figure out how commonly the dilution effect occurs in natural systems. By collecting all of the available empirical and/or observation  studies that consider biodiversity-disease relationships and lumping them together  into one analysis, we can figure out whether the dilution effect always, sometimes, or never occurs in natural systems. Before my last post on the dilution effect debates was published, two such meta-analyses argued that the dilution effect only sometimes occurs (it’s “idiosyncratic”) in systems where the focal hosts are humans and non-human primates. Additionally, in the meta-analysis regarding how biodiversity influences human risk of infection with zoonotic pathogens, Salkeld et al. (2013) found evidence of a publication bias for studies that find a dilution effect, suggesting that studies finding neutral or amplification effects are less likely to be published.

Fast forward to Civetello et al. (2015), who did a larger meta-analysis that included more studies in more host-parasite systems. As I posted about a few weeks ago, Civetello et al. (2015) found broad support for the dilution effect, which I suppose we can say means that the dilution effect “often” or “usually” occurs, which puts us somewhere between “always” and “sometimes.”

Now back to the “debate” part of this post: Salkeld et al. (in press) responded to the Civetello et al. (2015) paper with some concerns regarding the larger meta-analysis. In particular, they worried that including laboratory studies might muddle the analysis, because the way that we manipulate systems in the lab doesn’t necessarily correspond to what really happens in nature. Also, they pointed out that if there is a publication bias – as they previously found – then it might not be particularly meaningful that the dilution effect is commonly reported in the ecological literature. However, Civetello et al. (2015) didn’t evaluate whether there was a publication bias in their analysis. (Note that McCallum et al. 2015 also pointed out some of these possible concerns.)

Civetello et al. (in press) responded to these worries by doing another meta-analysis. They used only a subset of the studies from their previous paper, so that they were including only field studies of human pathogens, like in Salkeld et al. (2013). Civetello et al. (in press) still found an overall dilution effect, and they suggested that adding in the studies published since Salkeld et al. (2013) provided more statistical power to see the dilution effect than Salkeld et al. (2013) had. Civetello et al. (in press) also looked for publication bias in their subsetted dataset and didn’t find any evidence for bias, but they point out that the analysis to look for a publication bias had to violate some assumptions of independence, so it might not be particularly meaningful.

It’s unlikely that things are totally resolved here, but I think everyone is on the same page regarding the future directions for diversity-disease relationships: we’ve spent time looking for general trends and determining how common the dilution effect is in natural systems, and now it’s time to switch our focus to the mechanisms underlying the dilution effect.


Civitello DJ, et al. (2015) Biodiversity inhibits parasites: Broad evidence for the dilution effect. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112:8667–8671.

McCallum H. (2015) Lose biodiversity, gain disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112: 8523–8524.

Salkeld DJ, Padgett KA, Jones JH (2013) A meta-analysis suggesting that the relationship between biodiversity and risk of zoonotic pathogen transmission is idiosyncratic. Ecol Lett 16(5):679–686.

Salkeld DJ, Padgett KA, Jones JH, Antolin MF (2015) Public health perspective on patterns of biodiversity and zoonotic disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas.1517640112.

Why infectious disease research needs community ecology

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a recent Science paper by Johnson et al. (2015) entitled, “Why infectious disease research needs community ecology.” If you’re a disease ecologist, it probably won’t come as a surprise to you that infectious disease research needs community ecology. If you’re not a disease ecologist, check out this paper for a quick, informative read!

I was happy to see that Johnson et al. (2015) emphasized the importance of looking at symbiont communities as well as host communities when considering the spread of parasites and pathogens. The importance of symbiont communities is still not as widely recognized as I think it should be, and this paper does a great job of giving concrete examples of systems where coinfection by parasites/pathogens or the presence of non-pathogenic symbionts influence the spread of a single parasite within a host population or community.

If you’re looking for more examples where understanding the spread of parasites and pathogens required a detailed understanding of community ecology, check out some of these previous blog posts:

Considering symbiont communities is important:

Symbionts protect hosts from parasitoids

Diverse symbiont communities protect hosts from several natural enemies

Symbionts protect hosts from parasites

Considering host communities is important:

Host community diversity may reduce focal host infection risk

Multiple host and vector species for prairie dog plague

Spillover of pathogens from wildlife to livestock to humans

Fecal transplants and other kinds of microbial community restoration

Competition among host species influences transmission

Considering heterogeneity among individuals and species is important:

House finches and Mg

Tasmanian devils and facial tumor disease

The superhosts!

Mouse raves and contact heterogeneity

Coinfection and superspreaders


Johnson, P.T.J., J.C. de Roode, and A. Fenton. 2015. Why infectious disease research needs community ecology. Science 349(6252): 1259504.

Are superspreaders also superreceivers?

For simplicity, we often assume that all hosts have an equal probability of becoming infected by and transmitting parasites and pathogens. But of course, we know that it isn’t how real systems work. For instance, in real systems, hosts vary in their propensity to become infected by pathogens, and that variation is one probable cause of the parasite ecology “law” that macroparasites are aggregately distributed among hosts. We call hosts that are highly susceptible to a given pathogen “superreceivers,” and hosts that are highly likely to transmit a pathogen are “superspreaders.”

Here’s a question for you to ponder: are superspreaders usually superreceivers and/or are superreceivers usually superspreaders? For instance, sex workers are at high risk for contracting HIV (=superreceivers) because they frequently change sex partners, and they’re also highly likely to spread HIV (=superspreader), if they have it, in comparison to the average person. In that case, the superreceivers are also superspreaders. When that happens, we might predict really explosive epidemics whenever “patient zero” is a superreceiver+superspreader, because R0 will be very, very high.

But consider the Tasmanian devil example that I posted about recently. Tasmanian devils that bite lots of individuals are highly likely to contract Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease; they’re superreceivers. But being bitten by an infected individual doesn’t seem to transmit the infectious cancer to the receiving host, so devils that bite frequently don’t transmit any more frequently than devils that don’t bite frequently. Therefore, the superreceivers in that system aren’t superspreaders.

Now let’s talk about a really cool system that I somehow haven’t blogged about yet. House finches are hosts for an emerging bacterial pathogen (Mycoplasma gallisepticum – Mg) that jumped from poultry into house finches in the 1990s. This pathogen causes conjunctivitis in the house finches – a symptom you don’t often think about in wildlife! In a really neat recent paper, Adelman et al. (2015) showed that birds that spent more time on bird feeders were more likely to become infected by (superreceivers) and transmit (superspreaders) Mg. This is a really cool example of a pathogen that appears to be transmitted by “fomites”: inanimate objects that the pathogen can survive on when off the host.

We probably don’t have enough examples in the literature to determine whether superspreaders are usually superreceivers or to look for generalities in systems where this occurs. But we’re accumulating more examples all the time! Stay tuned.

…if academics were at higher risk of developing conjunctivitis when they sought out free food, I’d have some very squinty-eyed colleagues.



Adelman, J.S., S.C. Moyers, D.R. Farine, and D.M. Hawley. 2015. Feeder use predicts both acquisition and transmission of a contagious pathogen in a North American songbird. Proc Biol Sci. 282(1815): 20151429.