Disease feared threat to deer

December 25, 2002 The Washington Times by S.A. Miller

Maryland and Virginia officials are testing deer for a fatal disease that is tracking slowly across the country and could threaten the region's robust whitetail population.

Chronic wasting disease was discovered in Colorado mule deer in 1967 and, like the mad cow disease, it attacks the brains and spinal cords of deer and elk.

Over the last 35 years, the disease has been detected in 11 states and Canada. This year, it crossed the Mississippi River for the first time. Though the disease has posed no threat to humans, scientists think its discovery in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois poses a threat to Maryland and Virginia's 1.25 million white-tailed deer. The neurological disease is most common in captive deer and elk, but scientists are concerned about how it will behave in Maryland and Virginia's mostly wild herds and are skeptical that it poses no threat to humans.

"We've heard these same sort of facts about another disease that is related, and that is mad cow disease," said Scott Wright, a disease investigator at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., a clearinghouse for research on chronic wasting disease. "There is a certain amount of skepticism and discomfort that we don't know all the fact about this disease."

Another concern is that outdoorsmen worried about contracting the disease will stop hunting, which will undermine Virginia and Maryland's efforts to reduce their large deer populations.

"There is a lot that is not known about the disease, and it is important that we set up a monitoring program to detect it," said John Surrick, Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

Maryland, which has an estimated 250,000 deer, will test about 300 of them killed during hunting seasons. The tests will be conducted primarily in regions of Western Maryland that border Pennsylvania, where numerous elk and deer farms are considered the most likely spots for the disease to spread.

The results are due this spring.

Virginia has about 1 million deer and is testing about 1,000 of them killed by hunters throughout the state. The results are due later this month or in January.

Mad cow disease, as bovine spongiform encephalopathy is commonly known, was not believed to be transmittable from cows to humans when identified in Great Britain in 1985. But the British government acknowledged in 1996 that people had contracted the deadly new brain disease linked to the bovine affliction.

Dozens of people died from the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease presumably contracted by eating meat contaminated with mad cow disease. The ensuing panic harmed the British beef industry because other countries banned British beef and millions of British cattle were destroyed to stem the outbreak.

Chronic wasting disease, like mad cow disease, creates spongelike holes in the brain. Victims lose weight, begin to tremble and drool excessively before dying months or years later.

No treatment or vaccine is available for chronic wasting disease. In the event of an outbreak in captive deer or elk herds, the federal government has an emergency fund for an eradication program.

Health officials do not expect a repeat of the mad cow experience, but most states monitor for chronic wasting disease and warn deer hunters to take precautions.

They advise hunters to eat meat only from healthy-looking deer and to wear latex gloves when cleaning the animals.

The disease has been detected in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Canada. Researches are uncertain about the extent of the disease in other places because symptoms of chronic wasting disease can resemble other ailments and testing has been limited.

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