Urban habituation, ecological connectivity and epidemic dampening: the emergence of Hendra virus from flying foxes (Pteropus spp.)

Raina K. Plowright, Patrick Foley, Hume E. Field, Andy P. Dobson, Janet E. Foley, Peggy Eby, Peter Daszak

Abstract

Anthropogenic environmental change is often implicated in the emergence of new zoonoses from wildlife; however, there is little mechanistic understanding of these causal links. Here, we examine the transmission dynamics of an emerging zoonotic paramyxovirus, Hendra virus (HeV), in its endemic host, Australian Pteropus bats (fruit bats or flying foxes). HeV is a biosecurity level 4 (BSL-4) pathogen, with a high case-fatality rate in humans and horses. With models parametrized from field and laboratory data, we explore a set of probable contributory mechanisms that explain the spatial and temporal pattern of HeV emergence; including urban habituation and decreased migration—two widely observed changes in flying fox ecology that result from anthropogenic transformation of bat habitat in Australia. Urban habituation increases the number of flying foxes in contact with human and domestic animal populations, and our models suggest that, in addition, decreased bat migratory behaviour could lead to a decline in population immunity, giving rise to more intense outbreaks after local viral reintroduction. Ten of the 14 known HeV outbreaks occurred near urbanized or sedentary flying fox populations, supporting these predictions. We also demonstrate that by incorporating waning maternal immunity into our models, the peak modelled prevalence coincides with the peak annual spill-over hazard for HeV. These results provide the first detailed mechanistic framework for understanding the sporadic temporal pattern of HeV emergence, and of the urban/peri-urban distribution of HeV outbreaks in horses and people.

  • Received March 9, 2011.
  • Accepted April 15, 2011.
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