Forecasting Future Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Forecasting Future Infectious Disease Outbreaks
A majority of new reservoir and hyper-reservoir rodent species
are predicted to occur in the upper latitudes.
(Credit: Han et al.)
Machine learning can pinpoint rodent species that harbor diseases and geographic hotspots vulnerable to new parasites and pathogens, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 
Most emerging infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans, with more than a billion people suffering annually. Safeguarding public health requires effective surveillance tools.
 
The researchers employed machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to reveal patterns in an extensive set of data on more than 2,000 rodent species, with variables describing species' life history, ecology, behavior, physiology, and geographic distribution.
 
The team developed a model that was able to predict known rodent reservoir species with 90% accuracy, and identified particular traits that distinguish reservoirs from non-reservoirs. They revealed over 150 new potential rodent reservoir species and more than 50 new hyper-reservoirs - animals that may carry multiple pathogens infectious to humans.
 
The results give a watch list of high-risk rodent species whose intrinsic traits make them effective at carrying infections transmissible to people. However, rodents are not created equal in their ability to transmit disease. The riskiest reservoir species are those that mature quickly, reproduce early and often, and live northern temperate areas with low levels of biodiversity. The paper adds to the growing body of knowledge that 'pace of life' affects infection tolerance in animals.
 
Geographic areas found to have a high diversity of rodent reservoirs included North America, the Atlantic coast of South America, Europe, Russia, and parts of Central and East Asia. Predicted future hotspots of rodent reservoir diversity spanned arctic, temperate, tropical, and desert biomes, including China, Kazakhstan, and the Midwestern United States. A majority of new reservoir and hyper-reservoir species are predicted to occur in the upper latitudes.
 
"It was surprising to find more emerging rodent-borne diseases predicted for temperate zones than the tropics--given assumptions that the tropics are where new diseases originate," the researchers commented. "This result shows how data-driven discovery can correct such stereotypes."
 
The findings provide a basis for targeted surveillance efforts, which are vital given the cost of monitoring for emerging infectious diseases.
 
Based on material originally posted by Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.