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Quick test for wasting disease OK'd


November 5, 2002 Coloradoan by Sally Bridges

Hunters in Colorado now are armed with an on-demand, high-speed test to detect chronic wasting disease in mule deer. Within the next two weeks, a similar test could be approved for elk, as well.

The test, only available to hunters in the state, is expected to maintain hunter confidence and protect Colorado's businesses dependent on hunting revenue. The rapid test has been successfully used this fall by the state Division of Wildlife to speed up detection and notification to hunters that they had killed an infected deer. A year ago, hunters often were forced to wait several months for similar test results while their butchered venison sat in a freezer. This fall, Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, with labs in Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Rocky Ford, has conducted the tests as part of a national trial. By using the rapid test, results have been available to hunters within two weeks, DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said Monday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reviewed the trials and now has fully approved the new rapid test. That means hunters should begin getting the results even faster because some aspects of the testing process no longer will need to be duplicated, Malmsbury said.

The CSU diagnostic laboratories have overseen the testing project from the start. The new test is expected to replace an immunohistochemical test CSU helped develop that had been considered the gold standard, said Barbara Powers, who directs the CSU laboratory. The previous test took three to five days to complete with a limited number of samples able to be completed at a time.

The rapid test requires less training for technicians, who can process as many as 1,000 samples a day, she said.

A chronic wasting disease test is required for elk and deer killed in northeastern Colorado, where the disease is believed to be most prevalent, said Fred Quartarone, local DOW spokesman. However, the $17 rapid test is optional to hunters in the rest of the state, he said.

"It comes down to personal choice," Quartarone said "No other state offers this level of testing."

It's unknown how many hunters are making this choice, but it appears to be significant, Malmsbury said. The DOW expects to test about 20,000 animals this hunting year, he said.

CSU worked with wildlife agencies to make sure the test was available to all Colorado hunters, Powers said.

"We decided to meet the needs and the economy of Colorado," Powers said. "Hunting is an important part of the (Colorado) economy. The Western Slope is so dependent on hunters."

CSU began trials of the rapid test, manufactured by California-based Bio-Rad Laboratories, this summer after meeting with a team of European researchers last May.

The European researchers wanted to know if a rapid test already used to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease, could be adapted to screen for chronic wasting disease. Both diseases are transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSE, a group of neurodegenerative disorders that include scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is found in humans.

"The tests are very, very similar," Bio-Rad spokesman Brad Crutchfield said Monday. He praised CSU for helping the company earn USDA approval so quickly and by allowing all Colorado hunters to have access to tests.

Powers expects the USDA to approve a rapid test for elk in about 10 days, she said.

In Wisconsin, where chronic wasting disease is a problem, the state is overpopulated with whitetail deer, Crutchfield said. The state needs hunters to kill 750,000 deer this year but is only doing "surveillance" testing for chronic wasting disease on deer.

Although little is known about how the disease is spread, it seems to become more of a problem in areas with too many deer, he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the testing program, wants to test 500 deer from each county. By the end of March, these county-by-county results should be posted on the department's Web site. Hunters with a deer that tests positive for the disease will be notified directly and instructed on how to dispose of their deer meat, according to department officials.

But the process could be detrimental to hunting, Crutchfield said. Hunters with untested deer will have to wait and see if the area where they were hunting was found to have deer with chronic wasting disease, he said.

"If hunters don't think the game is safe, who's going to go hunting?" Crutchfield said. "And next spring, the deer population will be even higher."

Although there is no conclusive evidence that eating meat from a deer or elk infected with chronic wasting disease is dangerous to humans, food safety experts warn against eating any meat from an ill animal.

Interested?

For more information about getting a deer or elk tested for chronic wasting disease, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife Web site at www.wildlife.state.co.us/ cwd/ or call (800) 434-0274 or (303) 291 7293.

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