New rules aimed at sheep illness related to mad cow disease

November 24, 2001 The Bismarck Tribune by Mead Gruverv
CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- A new program designed to eliminate an illness related to mad cow disease is forcing farmers, herders and ranchers to register their sheep and goats with the federal government.

Under rules that took effect this week, the animals cannot be moved across state lines until they are registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The move is part of an effort to eradicate scrapie, a fatal livestock disease that is in a family of ailments that includes mad cow disease. Mad cow has been linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal ailment that occurs in humans.

Although scrapie has not been linked to any human disease, its stigma as a cousin of mad cow is hurting the sheep industry, said Diane Sutton of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Australia and New Zealand, both scrapie-free, refuse to import live American sheep and goats. China is considering a similar ban.

Sheep that come down with scrapie wobble and incessantly bite and scratch themselves. Like mad cow, scrapie can take years for symptoms to appear. Until that happens, or until the animal dies and its brain is studied, analyzing a tissue sample is the only way the disease can be detected.

Nationwide, 57 scrapie cases were recorded in October, with the largest number in Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Wyoming. One of the cases was in North Dakota.

Because there is no vaccine for scrapie, killing entire flocks wherever the disease appears is the only way the USDA can attack the disease. The department hopes to eliminate scrapie by 2010.

Despite the financial hit sustained by farmers who lose their flocks, the sheep industry backs the effort.

'With the media attention that mad cow got, we decided it is imperative that we rid this country of scrapie,' said Frank Moore, a Wyoming sheep rancher and president of the American Sheep Industry Association.

Last month, a Fordville, N.D., rancher agreed to kill his flock after one sheep came down with scrapie. In March, 260 Vermont sheep were killed because they may have been exposed to the disease.

Under the USDA's rules, 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 have identifying tattoos.

Sutton said the monitoring program has now includes 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.

Although scrapie is most commonly associated with sheep, goats can also get the disease. As with sheep, goats older than 18 months must be enrolled in the USDA program before they can cross state lines.

'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.'

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