New rules seek to stamp out sheep version of mad cow disease

November 15, 2001 Associated Press by Mead Gruver
Ever since mad cow disease started making Europeans leery of beef a few years ago, federal officials have redoubled their efforts to wipe out a related illness that makes sheep batty.

The latest measure to eliminate scrapie goes into effect Monday: Sheep and goats must be enrolled in a U.S. Department of Agriculture scrapie monitoring program to be allowed across state lines.

So far it appears that scrapie does not cause a human infection like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has been linked to mad cow and has killed at least 80 people in Britain. But scrapie's stigma as a cousin of mad cow and chronic wasting disease affecting elk in some Colorado game farms does no favors for the sheep industry, said Diane Sutton, scrapie program coordinator for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Australia and New Zealand, both scrapie-free, will not import live American sheep and goats. China is considering such a ban.

"Brazil won't import right now because of the scrapie problem," Sutton said. "And Mexico requires that imported animals be in the certification program, although slaughter animals are of course still permitted."

Invariably fatal, scrapie causes sheep to wobble and incessantly bite and scratch themselves. There is no cure or vaccine.

Like mad cow, it can take years for symptoms to appear. Until that happens, or until the animal dies and its brain is studied, analyzing a tissue sample from a sheep's inner eyelid is the only way the disease can be detected. The technique has limitations.

"It is a biopsy procedure and requires a great deal of manpower and expertise," Sutton said. "Right now we're primarily using it to test exposed and high-risk animals to determine their status."

As a result, killing entire flocks wherever the disease appears seems to be the only way the USDA can meet its goal of eliminating scrapie from the United States by 2010. Despite the obvious costs, the sheep industry is backing the effort.

"With the media attention that mad cow got, we decided it is imperative that we rid this country of scrapie," said American Sheep Industry President Frank Moore, a sheep rancher northwest of Douglas.

Last month, a North Dakota sheep rancher agreed to kill his flock after one animal came down with scrapie. In March, 260 Vermont sheep were killed because they were possibly exposed to the disease.

Under the USDA's latest rules, which were approved in August, sheep older than 18 months must come from herds enrolled in the scrapie program to be shipped across state lines. They must wear ear tags or be identifiable through tattoos.

Sutton said the monitoring program has grown by more than 25 percent over the past year to 837 producers nationwide. To date, 59 of those flocks have been cleared of scrapie.

"The idea is that once a herd is determined to be scrapie-free, they will have certification to that effect," Moore said.

Goats older than 18 months must also be enrolled before shipment.

"Goats are actually highly susceptible," Sutton said. "But because the majority of the disease is in the sheep population it doesn't spill over to goats."

According to the USDA, there were 57 scrapie cases nationwide last month. Sutton said Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Wyoming had the most cases.

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