How does CWD spread?
It is not known exactly how CWD is transmitted. The infectious agent may be passed in feces, urine or saliva. Transmission is thought to be lateral (from animal to animal). The minimal incubation period between infection and development of clinical disease appears to be approximately 16 months. The maximal incubation period is unknown, as is the point at which shedding of the CWD agent begins during the prolonged course of infection.
Because CWD infectious agents are extremely resistant in the environment, transmission may be both direct and indirect. Concentrating deer and elk in captivity or by artificial feeding probably increases the likelihood of both direct and indirect transmission between individuals. Contaminated pastures appear to have served as sources of infection in some CWD epidemics. The apparent persistence of the infectious agents in contaminated environments represents a significant obstacle to eradication of CWD from either captive or free-ranging cervid populations.
The movement of live animals is one of the greatest risk factors in spreading the disease into new areas. Natural movements of wild deer and elk contribute to the spread of the disease, and human-aided transportation of both captive and wild animals greatly exacerbates this risk factor. The apparent spread of CWD between captive and wild cervids is a matter of hot debate. Although strong circumstantial evidence suggests that CWD has spread from positive captive elk to wild cervids in some instances, it may never be proven which group of animals represents the source of infection. It is likely that the disease has been passed in both directions (from captive to wild animals, and from wild to captive animals).
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