Italy has experienced recurrent incursions of H5N2 avian influenza (AI) viruses in different geographical areas and varying sectors of the domestic poultry industry. Considering outbreak heterogeneity rather than treating all outbreaks of low pathogenicity AI (LPAI) viruses equally is important given their interactions with the environment and potential to spread, evolve and increase pathogenicity. This study aims at identifying potential environmental drivers of H5N2 LPAI outbreak occurrence in time, space and poultry populations. Thirty-four environmental variables were tested for association with the characteristics of 27 H5N2 LPAI outbreaks (i.e. time, place, flock type, number and species of birds affected) occurred among domestic poultry flocks in Italy in 2010–2012. This was done by applying a recently proposed analytical approach based on a combined non-metric multidimensional scaling, clustering and regression analysis. Results indicated that the pattern of (dis)similarities among the outbreaks entailed an underlying structure that may be the outcome of large-scale, environmental interactions in ecological dimension. Increased densities of poultry breeders, and increased land coverage by industrial, commercial and transport units were associated with increased heterogeneity in outbreak characteristics. In areas with high breeder densities and with many infrastructures, outbreaks affected mainly industrial turkey/layer flocks. Outbreaks affecting ornamental, commercial and rural multi-species flocks occurred mainly in lowly infrastructured areas of northern Italy. Outbreaks affecting rural layer flocks occurred mainly in areas with low breeder densities in south-central Italy. In savannah-like environments, outbreaks affected mainly commercial flocks of galliformes. Suggestive evidence that ecological ordination makes sense genetically was also provided, as virus strains showing high genetic similarity clustered into ecologically similar outbreaks. Findings were informed by hypotheses about how ecological interactions among poultry populations, viruses and their environments can be related to the observed patterns of H5N2 LPAI occurrence. This may prove useful in enhancing future interventions by developing site-specific, ecologically-grounded strategies.
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