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Chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer: Infection, mortality, and implications for heterogeneous transmission

November 1, 2016

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal neurodegenerative disease affecting free-ranging and captive cervids that now occurs in 24 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Despite the potential threat of CWD to deer populations, little is known about the rates of infection and mortality caused by this disease. We used epidemiological models to estimate the force of infection and disease-associated mortality for white-tailed deer in the Wisconsin and Illinois CWD outbreaks. Models were based on age-prevalence data corrected for bias in aging deer using the tooth wear and replacement method. Both male and female deer in the Illinois outbreak had higher corrected age-specific prevalence with slightly higher female infection than deer in the Wisconsin outbreak. Corrected ages produced more complex models with different infection and mortality parameters than those based on apparent prevalence. We found that adult male deer have a more than threefold higher risk of CWD infection than female deer. Males also had higher disease mortality than female deer. As a result, CWD prevalence was twofold higher in adult males than females. We also evaluated the potential impacts of alternative contact structures on transmission dynamics in Wisconsin deer. Results suggested that transmission of CWD among male deer during the nonbreeding season may be a potential mechanism for producing higher rates of infection and prevalence characteristically found in males. However, alternatives based on high environmental transmission and transmission from females to males during the breeding season may also play a role.