New test for deer disease State to sample animals' tonsils

New test for deer disease
State to sample animals' tonsils

May 19, 2001 Rocky Mountain News (Denver CO) by Dick Foster

State wildlife officials will experiment on 200 Colorado deer to find a way to detect the fatal chronic wasting disease in living animals.

Wildlife researchers plan to tranquilize animals around Estes Park and Livermore and take tissue samples from tonsils. The effort will go until late August in hope of discovering a test for detecting the disease.

"To date, the only tests we've had to detect chronic wasting disease involve postmortem animals," said Mike Miller, state wildlife veterinarian for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The brain-wasting disease in deer and elk is in the same family as mad cow disease, which has killed 90 people who ate infected beef in England and Continental Europe.

No evidence shows that chronic wasting disease in deer and elk can spread to humans, but scientists caution deer and elk hunters not to kill or eat animals that appear to be sick.

In Colorado, chronic wasting disease is confined to the northeastern section of the state from west of Estes Park to the Nebraska border. From 1 to 15 percent of the deer are infected.

Chronic wasting disease, like mad cow disease, is caused by a mutant protein called a prion that destroys healthy brain tissue, perforating it with holes. The disease's focus in the brain left researchers unable to confirm the illness without killing the animal and examining the brain tissue.

But scientists now believe the prions may also accumulate in tonsils, which allows them to tranquilize animals and take samples, Miller said.

State wildlife officials hope the experiment will enable them to detect diseased deer and elk in earlier stages of the illness, rather than waiting until the animals die.

The testing also could help them determine how the disease spreads and where it is found, Miller said.

Wildlife officials suspect crowding of herds may play a part in spreading the disease.

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