Environmental reservoirs are important to infectious disease transmission and persistence, but empirical analyses are relatively few. The natural environment is a reservoir for prions that cause chronic wasting disease (CWD) and influences the risk of transmission to susceptible cervids. Soil is one environmental component demonstrated to affect prion infectivity and persistence. Here we provide the first landscape predictive model for CWD based solely on soil characteristics. We built a boosted regression tree model to predict the probability of the persistent presence of CWD in a region of northern Illinois using CWD surveillance in deer and soils data. We evaluated the outcome for possible pathways by which soil characteristics may increase the probability of CWD transmission via environmental contamination. Soil clay content and pH were the most important predictive soil characteristics of the persistent presence of CWD. The results suggest that exposure to prions in the environment is greater where percent clay is less than 18% and soil pH is greater than 6.6. These characteristics could alter availability of prions immobilized in soil and contribute to the environmental risk factors involved in the epidemiological complexity of CWD infection in natural populations of white-tailed deer.
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