Cheng, Y; Tjaden, N; Jaeschke, A; Lühken, R; Ziegler, U; Thomas, S M; Beierkuhnlein, C: Evaluating the risk for Usutu virus circulation in Europe: comparison of environmental niche models and epidemiological models, International Journal of Health Geographics, 17, 35 (2018), doi:10.1186/s12942-018-0155-7

Usutu virus (USUV) is a mosquito-borne flavivirus, reported in many countries of Africa and Europe, with an increasing spatial distribution and host range. Recent outbreaks leading to regional declines of European common blackbird (Turdus merula) populations and a rising number of human cases emphasize the need for increased awareness and spatial risk assessment.

Modelling approaches in ecology and epidemiology differ substantially in their algorithms, potentially resulting in diverging model outputs. Therefore, we implemented a parallel approach incorporating two commonly applied modelling techniques: (1) Maxent, a correlation-based environmental niche model and (2) a mechanistic epidemiological susceptible-exposed-infected-removed (SEIR) model. Across Europe, surveillance data of USUV-positive birds from 2003 to 2016 was acquired to train the environmental niche model and to serve as test cases for the SEIR model. The SEIR model is mainly driven by daily mean temperature and calculates the basic reproduction number R0. The environmental niche model was run with long-term bio-climatic variables derived from the same source in order to estimate climatic suitability.

Large areas across Europe are currently suitable for USUV transmission. Both models show patterns of high risk for USUV in parts of France, in the Pannonian Basin as well as northern Italy. The environmental niche model depicts the current situation better, but with USUV still being in an invasive stage there is a chance for under-estimation of risk. Areas where transmission occurred are mostly predicted correctly by the SEIR model, but it mostly fails to resolve the temporal dynamics of USUV events. High R0 values predicted by the SEIR model in areas without evidence for real-life transmission suggest that it may tend towards over-estimation of risk.

The results from our parallel-model approach highlight that relying on a single model for assessing vector-borne disease risk may lead to incomplete conclusions. Utilizing different modelling approaches is thus crucial for risk-assessment of under-studied emerging pathogens like USUV.

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