Wasting disease detected in Kansas elk

December 12, 2001 Kansas City Star by Bill Graham
A pen-raised elk has tested positive for chronic wasting disease in Kansas, prompting a quarantine and concern that the mysterious ailment similar to mad-cow disease might spread to wild deer.

In addition, Nebraska officials said last week that four whitetail deer had tested positive for the disease in the northwest part of the state. They were confined on a commercial hunting ranch near a domestic elk herd with cases of chronic wasting.

In Kansas, the elk with the disease was on a Harper County ranch southwest of Wichita, said George Teagarden, state livestock commissioner. The elk was shipped in from Colorado and had been exposed to a herd there with several cases of the disease. It was diagnosed late last week. "This bothers us," Teagarden said. "We've felt pretty lucky that we haven't brought this into Kansas before. It's a concern of the deer and elk industry here in Kansas."

Teagarden declined to name the rancher.

Missouri livestock authorities have tested seven elk shipped into the state from the same Colorado herd. The tests were negative, and results are out on an eighth animal, said Dave Hopson, acting state veterinarian. Six more elk from the herd, now in southwest Missouri, are yet to be tested.

Wildlife agencies are also testing wild deer killed by hunters for chronic wasting, which is a brain-wasting disease similar to mad-cow disease or the human variants, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

So far no free-ranging elk or deer in Kansas or Missouri have tested positive. But because of a backlog, most test results won't be known for weeks or months.

Chronic wasting disease is not known to pose a threat to humans or to be transmissible to livestock; nor does it spread quickly among wildlife. There is no human threat from eating deer meat and no reason for hunters to stop going afield, wildlife officials say. [The best available science disagrees--BSE coordinator]

Authorities are extremely cautious about chronic wasting, however, because scientists are not certain what causes the disease or how it is transmitted. That's true as well for the human and livestock variants.

"We consider it a wildlife emergency up here in Nebraska," said Bruce Morrison, an assistant administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "We're highly concerned."

Two wild mule deer at a different location in Nebraska's panhandle also tested positive. The area is near the corners of Colorado and Wyoming, where other cases of chronic wasting have been reported for several years.

Most experts think the diseases are caused by a protein mutation, called prions, that damages the nervous system. But researchers are also studying potential bacterial or viral causes.

The disease damages brain and spinal cord tissue and causes listlessness and eventually death. There is no known cure.

Veterinarians reported that the Kansas elk with chronic wasting appeared healthy, said Lloyd Fox, a biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

"This makes us very uncomfortable," Fox said. "We know enough to know the disease can be transmitted, and we know the site where this animal was has the potential to be contaminated."

The herd exposed to the elk is now quarantined and will probably be purchased, killed and tested by the state, Teagarden said. Animals must be killed so brain tissue can be checked for the disease.

Wildlife officials want the exposed pasture fenced to keep deer out, Fox said. Because so little is known about the disease, they don't know how long such quarantines should last.

"To me that's what makes this a very scary disease," he said, "the complexities and uncertainties."

The Kansas case shows that although the disease spreads slowly among free-ranging wildlife, transportation of sick commercial deer or elk can move the disease into another state quickly, said Beth Williams, a University of Wyoming veterinary professor who has studied chronic wasting since 1977.

"There certainly is concern about it spreading from domestic animals into the wild," Williams said. "Animals can jump fences and get through holes in fences."

Missouri recently banned the importation of any elk or deer from a county with cases of chronic wasting, Hopson said. The elk exposed to the Colorado herd were shipped before the ban and before animals in the herd were diagnosed.

Kansas prohibits the importation of any animal from a herd with the disease.

Although authorities don't expect problems, Fox said, Missouri and Kansas deer hunters should, as a precaution, avoid eating or handling brains or spinal tissue.

Authorities are nervous, Fox said, because a disease with so many unknowns has the potential to evolve into something similar to the mad-cow outbreak that killed several persons in Europe and devastated Great Britain's beef industry.

"That's something we have in the back of our minds," Fox said. "At the same time, we don't want to cause undue alarm."

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