Modeling the Impact of Environment on Infectious Diseases
- Giovanni Lo IaconoGiovanni Lo IaconoSchool of Veterinary Medicine, University of Surrey. Guildford, United Kingdom
- and Gordon L. NicholsGordon L. NicholsPublic Health England
The introduction of pasteurization, antibiotics, and vaccinations, as well as improved sanitation, hygiene, and education, were critical in reducing the burden of infectious diseases and associated mortality during the 19th and 20th centuries and were driven by an improved understanding of disease transmission. This advance has led to longer average lifespans and the expectation that, at least in the developed world, infectious diseases were a problem of the past. Unfortunately this is not the case; infectious diseases still have a significant impact on morbidity and mortality worldwide. Moreover, the world is witnessing the emergence of new pathogens, the reemergence of old ones, and the spread of antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, effective control of infectious diseases is challenged by many factors, including natural disasters, extreme weather, poverty, international trade and travel, mass and seasonal migration, rural–urban encroachment, human demographics and behavior, deforestation and replacement with farming, and climate change.
The importance of environmental factors as drivers of disease has been hypothesized since ancient times; and until the late 19th century, miasma theory (i.e., the belief that diseases were caused by evil exhalations from unhealthy environments originating from decaying organic matter) was a dominant scientific paradigm. This thinking changed with the microbiology era, when scientists correctly identified microscopic living organisms as the pathogenic agents and developed evidence for transmission routes. Still, many complex patterns of diseases cannot be explained by the microbiological argument alone, and it is becoming increasingly clear that an understanding of the ecology of the pathogen, host, and potential vectors is required.
There is increasing evidence that the environment, including climate, can affect pathogen abundance, survival, and virulence, as well as host susceptibility to infection. Measuring and predicting the impact of the environment on infectious diseases, however, can be extremely challenging. Mathematical modeling is a powerful tool to elucidate the mechanisms linking environmental factors and infectious diseases, and to disentangle their individual effects. A common mathematical approach used in epidemiology consists in partitioning the population of interest into relevant epidemiological compartments, typically individuals unexposed to the disease (susceptible), infected individuals, and individuals who have cleared the infection and become immune (recovered). The typical task is to model the transitions from one compartment to another and to estimate how these populations change in time. There are different ways to incorporate the impact of the environment into this class of models. Two interesting examples are water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases. For water-borne diseases, the environment can be represented by an additional compartment describing the dynamics of the pathogen population in the environment—for example, by modeling the concentration of bacteria in a water reservoir (with potential dependence on temperature, pH, etc.). For vector-borne diseases, the impact of the environment can be incorporated by using explicit relationships between temperature and key vector parameters (such as mortality, developmental rates, biting rate, as well as the time required for the development of the pathogen in the vector).
Despite the tremendous advancements, understanding and mapping the impact of the environment on infectious diseases is still a work in progress. Some fundamental aspects, for instance, the impact of biodiversity on disease prevalence, are still a matter of (occasionally fierce) debate. There are other important challenges ahead for the research exploring the potential connections between infectious diseases and the environment. Examples of these challenges are studying the evolution of pathogens in response to climate and other environmental changes; disentangling multiple transmission pathways and the associated temporal lags; developing quantitative frameworks to study the potential effect on infectious diseases due to anthropogenic climate change; and investigating the effect of seasonality. Ultimately, there is an increasing need to develop models for a truly “One Health” approach, that is, an integrated, holistic approach to understand intersections between disease dynamics, environmental drivers, economic systems, and veterinary, ecological, and public health responses.