Increased Avian Diversity Is Associated with Lower Incidence of Human West Nile Infection: Observation of the Dilution Effect

John P. Swaddle, College of William and Mary
Stavros E. Calos, College of William and Mary


Recent infectious disease models illustrate a suite of mechanisms that can result in lower incidence of disease in areas of higher disease host diversity–the ‘dilution effect’. These models are particularly applicable to human zoonoses, which are infectious diseases of wildlife that spill over into human populations. As many recent emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses, the mechanisms that underlie the ‘dilution effect’ are potentially widely applicable and could contribute greatly to our understanding of a suite of diseases. The dilution effect has largely been observed in the context of Lyme disease and the predictions of the underlying models have rarely been examined for other infectious diseases on a broad geographic scale. Here, we explored whether the dilution effect can be observed in the relationship between the incidence of human West Nile virus (WNV) infection and bird (host) diversity in the eastern US. We constructed a novel geospatial contrasts analysis that compares the small differences in avian diversity of neighboring US counties (where one county reported human cases of WNV and the other reported no cases) with associated between-county differences in human disease. We also controlled for confounding factors of climate, regional variation in mosquito vector type, urbanization, and human socioeconomic factors that are all likely to affect human disease incidence. We found there is lower incidence of human WNV in eastern US counties that have greater avian (viral host) diversity. This pattern exists when examining diversity-disease relationships both before WNV reached the US (in 1998) and once the epidemic was underway (in 2002). The robust disease-diversity relationships confirm that the dilution effect can be observed in another emerging infectious disease and illustrate an important ecosystem service provided by biodiversity, further supporting the growing view that protecting biodiversity should be considered in public health and safety plans.