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Deer Susceptible to Disease
map of north america showing distribution of chronic wasting disease. Click for larger image.
The extent of chronic wasting disease in the U.S., as of 2012.

Credit: USGS

Researchers funded through the EEID program recently found that chronic wasting disease (CWD) can be transmitted through environments contaminated by whole carcasses or by excrement of animals infected with the pathogen that causes CWD.  CWD is rampant in Western states like Colorado.

"Diseases like CWD are poorly understood and of rising concern," said Sam Scheiner, EEID program director at NSF. "This new knowledge will substantially alter how we manage the disease in wild and domestic animals."

CWD is a fatal neurological ailment of elk, white-tailed deer and mule deer.  Researchers believe the disease is caused by an aberrant prion protein that misfolds in the brain, destroying brain tissue as it progresses.  The disease is always fatal and there is no known cure or treatment.

Although live deer and elk still seem the most likely way for CWD to spread geographically, environmental sources could contribute to maintaining and prolonging local epidemics, even when all infected animals are eliminated, said biologist Tom Hobbs of Colorado State University. "Through the EEID program, we hope to develop models that will predict the behavior of the disease, shedding light on how potentially complex these epidemics may be in natural populations."

Next: Lyme Disease on the Rise

Ecology of Infection Diseases A Special Report