Pathogeography: leveraging the biogeography of human infectious diseases for global health management

Published online: 
20 February 2018

Kris A. Murray, Jesús Olivero, Benjamin Roche, Sonia Tiedt, Jean-Francois Guégan

Biogeography is an implicit and fundamental component of almost every dimension of modern biology, from natural selection and speciation to invasive species and biodiversity management. However, biogeography has rarely been integrated into human or veterinary medicine nor routinely leveraged for global health management. Here we review the theory and application of biogeography to the research and management of human infectious diseases, an integration we refer to as ‘pathogeography’. Pathogeography represents a promising framework for understanding and decomposing the spatial distributions, diversity patterns and emergence risks of human infectious diseases into interpretable components of dynamic socio-ecological systems. Analytical tools from biogeography are already helping to improve our understanding of individual infectious disease distributions and the processes that shape them in space and time. At higher levels of organization, biogeographical studies of diseases are rarer but increasing, improving our ability to describe and explain patterns that emerge at the level of disease communities (e.g., co-occurrence, diversity patterns, biogeographic regionalisation). Even in a highly globalized world most human infectious diseases remain constrained in their geographic distributions by ecological barriers to the dispersal or establishment of their causal pathogens, reservoir hosts and/or vectors. These same processes underpin the spatial arrangement of other taxa, such as mammalian biodiversity, providing a strong empirical ‘prior’ with which to assess the potential distributions of infectious diseases when data on their occurrence is unavailable or limited. In the absence of quality data, generalized biogeographic patterns could provide the earliest (and in some cases the only) insights into the potential distributions of many poorly known or emerging, or as-yet-unknown, infectious disease risks. Encouraging more community ecologists and biogeographers to collaborate with health professionals (and vice versa) has the potential to improve our understanding of infectious disease systems and identify novel management strategies to improve local, global and planetary health.

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Doi
10.1111/ecog.03625