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Vacated niches, competitive release and the community ecology of pathogen eradication

  • Author(s): Lloyd-Smith, JO
  • et al.

A recurring theme in the epidemiological literature on disease eradication is that each pathogen occupies an ecological niche, and eradication of one pathogen leaves a vacant niche that favours the emergence of new pathogens to replace it. However, eminent figures have rejected this view unequivocally, stating that there is no basis to fear pathogen replacement and even that pathogen niches do not exist. After exploring the roots of this controversy, I propose resolutions to disputed issues by drawing on broader ecological theory, and advance a new consensus based on robust mechanistic principles. I argue that pathogen eradication (and cessation of vaccination) leads to a 'vacated niche',which could be re-invaded by the original pathogen if introduced.Consequences for other pathogens will vary, with the crucial mechanisms being competitive release, whereby the decline of one species allows its competitors to perform better, and evolutionary adaptation.Hence, eradication can cause a quantitative rise in the incidence of another infection, but whether this leads to emergence as an endemic pathogen depends on additional factors. I focus on the case study of human monkeypox and its rise following smallpox eradication, but also survey how these ideas apply to other pathogens and discuss implications for eradication policy. © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.

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