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Test for deer ailment is tall order;
State may be unable to certify all venison in fall

May 19, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist
Scientists and government officials face an uphill battle in developing and approving a laboratory test by this fall that would tell hundreds of thousands of deer hunters their venison is safe.

The issue has been a hot topic at a series of statewide public meetings in recent weeks after the discovery of chronic wasting disease in 14 deer since February.

"There is a lot of pressure to get a test available so hunters can test their deer," said Steve Miller, administrator of the state Department of Natural Resources' Division of Land.

"It's a critical issue right now . . . people want to have the peace of mind." But no quick, government-approved test exists today.

"I would not stick my neck out and say that it would be validated for the fall," said Robert Ehlenfeldt, assistant state veterinarian.

Gov. Scott McCallum on Saturday signed legislation, passed by lawmakers in a special session Thursday, that allocates $900,000 for creating the first lab in Wisconsin to test for the disease. The new law also authorizes DNR regulation of recreational deer feeding, special hunts and up to $3 million more to combat the disease. McCallum is awaiting word on $18.5 million in federal money he has requested over the next four years to aid in the effort.

Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, which is helping states such as Wisconsin with the outbreaks, said the state faces a huge task: "I don't think that anyone would be prepared to test all of the animals that will be taken this year."

As for an even easier test that hunters could use in the field, experts said there is no chance such a product would be ready this year.

Chronic wasting disease is related to mad cow disease, and its discovery in Wisconsin on Feb. 28 has threatened a rite of fall for some 700,000 hunters.

The deadly neurological disease caused by an infectious protein called a prion has cast uncertainly over the safety of eating venison. The DNR says that it cannot guarantee the safety of Wisconsin venison.

The World Health Organization has said there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. But the agency said deer or elk with evidence of the disease should not be eaten.

Testing now done in Iowa

To test for the disease, Wisconsin so far has shipped more than 500 deer from an area near Mount Horeb in western Dane County to a government laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

The new state funding will allow the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison to test up to 15,000 deer.

But even with that upgrade, the Madison lab will not have the capacity to test the 300,000 or more deer typically killed during the fall gun hunt.

Two solutions would allow more testing: use a so-called "rapid test" that would shrink the time to test a dead deer from days to a few hours, and use private labs to share the load.

The rapid test could be ready by fall, said Ron Dehaven, deputy administrator for veterinary services at the U.S. Animal and Plant Inspection Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rapid test would require a specially outfitted laboratory and would have to be certified by the government.

As for the private labs?

"We are considering that as a regulatory issue, and we need to make a decision pretty soon," Dehaven said.

These and other issues will be brought up when Undersecretary of Agriculture William Hawks visits Wisconsin on Monday. He will confer with U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) in the morning in Milwaukee and meet with McCallum and other state officials in Madison in the afternoon.

Rapid tests researched

A rapid test for chronic wasting disease would be patterned after a rapid test used in Europe and Japan for mad cow disease.

The U.S. Agricultural Research Service is taking three commercial tests for mad cow disease and trying to apply them to chronic wasting disease.

"These tests are geared so that a lab can do a couple of thousand a day," said Katherine O'Rourke, a research microbiologist with the research service in Pullman, Wash.

She expects Wisconsin and other states to experiment with a rapid test for deer this summer. She said that scientists have found that prions show up earlier in deer tissue such as tonsils and lymph nodes.

Prion research is "a very tricky thing," said Judd Aiken, a prion expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Research is still relatively new, and rapid tests will be inherently less accurate, he said. His concern is whether officials can give a hunter's deer a clean bill of health.

"I am not sure that is a statement you want to make," Aiken said.

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