On September 4 – 7, 2022, MOOD partners joined the 16th edition of the International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and other Tick-borne diseases (ICLB) organized by the KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
The scientific program included leading speakers from the USA and Europe and covered a wide range of topics touching upon tick-host-pathogen interactions, diagnosis & treatment, and prevention.
Zoonotic tick-borne diseases are an increasing health burden in Europe due to climatic and environmental changes affecting vector biology and disease transmission. These variations are at the center of one of the MOOD’s case studies ‘Tick-born Encephalitis’, which aims to enhance national and international preparedness and response to the current and future spread of TBE across Europe.
We interviewed Francesca Dagostin, research associate at Fondazione Edmund Mach and active participant in the MOOD case study on TBE, who presented a scientific poster entitled “Ecological and environmental factors affecting the risk of tick-borne encephalitis emergence in Europe” –a research work funded by the project. Here’s a summary of our exchange.
What take-home messages did you get from this conference?
The conference attracted a heterogeneous audience, including researchers, healthcare workers and representatives of public health agencies, whose work revolves around different aspects of tick-borne diseases management and control (such as, for instance, modelling, diagnostics, vaccine development, and surveillance). I highly enjoyed the session focusing on disease ecology in a changing climate and environment, as it was the closest to my research topic, but I have to say that all talks were stimulating and, overall, it was a unique chance to acquire an all-round vision on tick-borne diseases from the perspective of multiple scientific fields.
As discussed in your poster presented at the event, what are the ecological and environmental factors affecting the risk of tick-borne encephalitis emergence in Europe? And how are these factors affecting the risk of TBE emergence?
The most relevant factors shaping TBE spread in Europe, which we identified by statistical modeling, include temperature-related variables, measures of vegetation cover, and, last but not least, the probability of the presence of critical animal species (rodents and ungulates). This result stresses the importance of considering the presence of animal hosts when modeling the risk of the emergence of new TBE hotspots, which is usually accomplished in local and national studies with game animal density data. In this study, we used alternative variables, such as the probability of the presence of rodents and ungulates, which proved to be good predictors for assessing the risk of TBE outbreaks in vast geographical areas. All of these factors showed contrasting effects on TBE risk, which will be thoroughly discussed in our scientific paper, currently under review.
In your opinion, what are the geographical areas with the highest risks of TBE emergence?
The geolocation of the areas with the highest risk of TBE is a major challenge, as the occurrence of TBE is patchy and “foci of infection” are difficult to identify and often change. TBE is currently endemic in 27 European countries, but, in recent years, the distribution of TBEv foci showed altitudinal and longitudinal shifts, with new foci also in non-endemic countries. The next step in our research will therefore be focused on mapping the risk of TBE outbreaks in Europe and will be based on the comprehensive understanding of the forces driving the intensity of viral circulation that we acquired through this study.
How is climate change affecting the risk of emergence?
Tick-borne encephalitis is a seasonal disease, dependent on tick abundance and activity, which in turn is strongly affected by climatic conditions. Temperature-related variables play a predominant role in shaping TBE spread. In our study, we found that higher rates of autumnal cooling, i.e., a steep decrease in late summer temperatures, colder winters, and smaller variations in daily temperature values, are all related to higher TBE incidence.
While climate change may affect the future large-scale shift in tick distribution and the probability of TBE persistence at the extreme edges of its range, in this study we did not focus on its specific role, which should be assessed by specifically predicting TBE spread under different climatic scenarios.
Do you think there is enough awareness about these risks among Public Health and Animal Health agencies? And among citizens?
TBE is a growing threat to public health and therefore Public Health and Animal Health agencies are currently paying the utmost attention to this matter, as cases are rising in endemic and also previously non-endemic areas. From my personal perspective, I can say that public awareness is also growing thanks to awareness-raising and vaccination campaigns in known high-risk areas. This is important, as the adoption of preventive behaviours by citizens at risk helps to contrast the increase in TBE cases.
How is your work contributing to the MOOD project and to the improvement of risk surveillance in Europe in general?
I am currently a researcher in the Applied Ecology Group at Fondazione Edmund Mach, under the supervision of Dr Annapaola Rizzoli, and I’m working full-time on the MOOD project. In this respect, my team oversees Work Package 2, “disease intelligence”, which is focused on establishing the covariates and thresholds needed to define early warning signals of disease emergence and inform modeling efforts aimed at assessing disease risk. To make this knowledge available to end-users, we developed an interactive dashboard that summarizes our findings and that will be made available on the MOOD platform by the end of the project. This dashboard will also be coupled with a “TBE risk map” showing the areas at higher risk of disease outbreaks, as the early identification of potential health threats is fundamental to improving timely detection and awareness of infectious disease events at the earliest stage of their emergence.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I would just like to say that my research was entirely funded by the MOOD project, and would not have been possible without the precious support of MOOD partners and of my team at Fondazione Edmund Mach. Through this project, I had the chance to collaborate with researchers and end-users from top universities and institutions in Europe and to contribute to the now-more-than-ever urgent topic of disease emerge, in a “One Health” perspective. Lastly, I strongly believe that, given the current context of global health challenges, a project like MOOD, which is highly innovative as it combines research with tool development, could really make an impact in facing new disease outbreaks and overall improving Epidemic intelligence in Europe.