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Geographic distribution and ecological niche of plague in sub-Saharan Africa

Simon B Neerinckx13*, Andrew T Peterson2, Hubert Gulinck3, Jozef Deckers3 and Herwig Leirs14

Author Affiliations

1 Evolutionary Ecology Group, Department of Biology, Universiteit Antwerpen, Groenenborgerlaan 171, B-2020 Antwerp, Belgium

2 Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, University of Kansas, 1345 Jayhawk Boulevard, Lawrence, KS 66045-7561, USA

3 Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Celestijnenlaan 200 E, B-3001 Heverlee, Belgium

4 Danish Pest Infestation Laboratory, University of Aarhus, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Integrated Pest Management, Skovbrynet 14, DK-2800 Kongens Lyngby, Denmark

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2008, 7:54  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-7-54

Published: 23 October 2008



Plague is a rapidly progressing, serious illness in humans that is likely to be fatal if not treated. It remains a public health threat, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of plague's highly focal nature, a thorough ecological understanding of the general distribution pattern of plague across sub-Saharan Africa has not been established to date. In this study, we used human plague data from sub-Saharan Africa for 1970–2007 in an ecological niche modeling framework to explore the potential geographic distribution of plague and its ecological requirements across Africa.


We predict a broad potential distributional area of plague occurrences across sub-Saharan Africa. General tests of model's transferability suggest that our model can anticipate the potential distribution of plague occurrences in Madagascar and northern Africa. However, generality and predictive ability tests using regional subsets of occurrence points demonstrate the models to be unable to predict independent occurrence points outside the training region accurately. Visualizations show plague to occur in diverse landscapes under wide ranges of environmental conditions.


We conclude that the typical focality of plague, observed in sub-Saharan Africa, is not related to fragmented and insular environmental conditions manifested at a coarse continental scale. However, our approach provides a foundation for testing hypotheses concerning focal distribution areas of plague and their links with historical and environmental factors.