Comprehensive understanding of the patterns and drivers of avian influenza outbreaks is pivotal to inform surveillance systems and heighten nations’ ability to quickly detect and respond to the emergence of novel viruses. Starting in early 2017, the Italian poultry sector has been involved in the massive H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza epidemic that spread in the majority of the European countries in 2016/2017. Eighty-three outbreaks were recorded in north-eastern Italy, where a densely populated poultry area stretches along the Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto regions. The confirmed cases, affecting both the rural and industrial sectors, depicted two distinct epidemic waves. We adopted a combination of multivariate statistics techniques and multi-model regression selection and inference, to investigate how environmental factors relate to the pattern of outbreaks diversity with respect to their spatiotemporal and genetic diversity. Results showed that a combination of eco-climatic and host density predictors were associated with the outbreaks pattern, and variation along gradients was noticeable among genetically and geographically distinct groups of avian influenza cases. These regional contrasts may be indicative of a different mechanism driving the introduction and spreading routes of the influenza virus in the domestic poultry population. This methodological approach may be extended to different spatiotemporal scale to foster site-specific, ecologically informed risk mitigating strategies.
Different environmental gradients associated to the spatio-temporal and genetic pattern of the H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in poultry in Italy