Background Anthrax is a zoonotic disease primarily of herbivores, caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium with diverse geographical and global distribution. Globally, livestock outbreaks have declined but in Africa significant outbreaks continue to occur with most countries still categorized as enzootic, hyper endemic or sporadic. Uganda experiences sporadic human and livestock cases. Severe large-scale outbreaks occur periodically in hippos (Hippopotamus amphibious) at Queen Elizabeth Protected Area, where in 2004/2005 and 2010 anthrax killed 437 hippos. Ecological drivers of these outbreaks and potential of hippos to maintain anthrax in the ecosystem remain unknown. This study aimed to describe spatio-temporal patterns of anthrax among hippos; examine significant trends associated with case distributions; and generate hypotheses for investigation of ecological drivers of anthrax. Methods Spatio-temporal patterns of 317 hippo cases in 2004/5 and 137 in 2010 were analyzed. QGIS was used to examine case distributions; Spearman’s nonparametric tests to determine correlations between cases and at-risk hippo populations; permutation models of the spatial scan statistics to examine spatio-temporal clustering of cases; directional tests to determine directionality in epidemic movements; and standard epidemic curves to determine patterns of epidemic propagation. Key findings Results showed hippopotamus cases extensively distributed along water shorelines with strong positive correlations (p<0.01) between cases and at-risk populations. Significant (p<0.001) spatio-temporal clustering of cases occurred throughout the epidemics, pointing towards a defined source. Significant directional epidemic spread was detected along water flow gradient (206.6) in 2004/5 and against flow gradient (20.4) in 2010. Temporal distributions showed clustered pulsed epidemic waves. Conclusion These findings suggest mixed point-source propagated pattern of epidemic spread amongst hippos and points to likelihood of indirect spread of anthrax spores between hippos mediated by their social behaviour, forces of water flow, and persistent presence of infectious carcasses amidst schools. This information sheds light on the epidemiology of anthrax in highly social wildlife, can help drive insight into disease control, wildlife conservation, and tourism management, but highlights the need for analytical and longitudinal studies aimed at clarifying the hypotheses.
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