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First chronic wasting case found in Minnesota

August 30, 2002 Associated Press by ASHLEY H. GRANT 
State officials on Friday confirmed Minnesota's first case of chronic wasting disease, found in an elk that was part of a farm-raised herd in Aitkin County.

The state Board of Animal Health said a 5-year-old male elk tested positive for the debilitating disease after dying mysteriously about Aug. 15. The rest of the herd, which includes 48 animals, has been quarantined.

Officials previously announced plans to test 5,000 deer killed by hunters this fall for the disease after it showed up in Wisconsin earlier this year. So far, 24 deer have tested positive for the disease there. Chronic wasting disease is an incurable, brain-destroying illness that causes deer, elk, moose and caribou to grow thin and die. Once found just in a small area of Colorado and Wyoming, chronic wasting disease has spread through elk ranches and wild deer herds as far away as Wisconsin.

Thousands of captive elk have been slaughtered in Colorado and hundreds of deer have been killed in Wisconsin. The disease has also been found in New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Canada.

Officials believe the Minnesota elk was bought from a Stearns County farm in August 2000 and expected confirmation later Friday. If the diseased animal did come from that farm, it would be quarantined as well.

The Aitkin County farm has no animals other than elk, which are kept in a fenced pasture. Officials did not immediately release the name of the farm's owners.

Nationally, the Aitkin County herd is the 23rd farmed herd found to be contaminated with chronic wasting, and Minnesota is the seventh state with a contaminated farmed herd. In other states, the disease has been contained within those herds, Minnesota officials said.

In most cases, the entire herds have been destroyed - something that may become necessary in the Minnesota case, said Paul Anderson, a veterinarian and assistant director at the Board of Animal Health.

Minnesota has 225 elk farms, 41 white-tailed deer farms and 16 that have a mixture of both. They hold a total of 11,157 elk and 1,468 deer.

The majority of those farms participate in a state monitoring program designed to prevent chronic wasting. Under the voluntary program, farm operators keep records of all animals entering and leaving the herd. Brain tissue samples are submitted from any animal older than 16 months that is slaughtered or dies for any reason.

The samples are then sent to a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where they are tested for chronic wasting. That's how the Aitkin County case was detected. That farm had been enrolled in the program since 2000 and has had four other elk tested for the disease in that time - all tested negative.

Mike DonCarlos, wildlife research manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said officials planned to kill and test at least 100 deer in the vicinity of the elk farm immediately.

"Our goal is to be culling deer just as soon as possible," DonCarlos said.

The DNR also will proceed with plans to test deer statewide this fall. About 90 DNR employees and others plan to take brain matter from 5,040 deer during the early part of the gun hunting season, which opens Nov. 9.

Samples from 360 deer will be taken randomly at registration stations in 14 of the 130 deer management areas around the state. More than half of the areas being tested are on or near the Wisconsin border. Most of the others are situated in areas that have high concentrations of captive deer or elk farms.

That plan may change if more cases of chronic wasting turn up.

On Wednesday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum told federal officials that hunters' fears over the safety of deer meat could cause one-third of them to skip this fall's hunt, jeopardizing the state's battle to control the disease there.

McCallum sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman urging her agency to "get off the dime" and approve a rapid test for the fatal brain disease and certify private laboratories so they can also do the testing.

Hunters are demanding to know whether deer they kill this fall have the disease, and testing is the only way to find out, McCallum said.

Minnesota has about 450,000 deer hunters and a deer population of over 1 million. DNR officials expect hunters to kill about 200,000 deer this year.

Overall, the testing (including employee work time and the testing itself) is expected to cost about $450,000. About half of the samples will be tested at the University of Minnesota, with the remainder being sent to U.S. Department of Agriculture labs.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of health have been working with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, investigating the deaths of three men from neurological diseases.

Two of the men died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and the third of Pick's disease. The two Wisconsin men and one Minnesota man knew one another and ate at wild game feasts hosted by one of them.

The cases have attracted attention because of concerns that CWD could eventually show up in humans in the form of CJD, a fatal brain illness that is in the same class of diseases as chronic wasting.

Although there has been no scientifically proven link between CWD and the human illness CJD, both are versions of a family of diseases called spongiform encephalopathies. Mad cow disease, the version of the illness that affects cattle, did jump the species barrier in Europe and killed people.

Ashley H. Grant may be reached at agrant(at)ap.org

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