Chronic Wasting Disease Planning Accelerated

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The discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in a wild mule deer in southern New Mexico last month has lent new urgency to Texas plans to detect and control the illness that affects deer and elk, if and when it is found in Texas.

On June 17, tissue collected from a mule deer on the White Sands Missile Range tested positive for CWD, the first confirmed case in New Mexico.

"There is still no evidence that CWD is in Texas, but this puts it one state away," said Robert L. Cook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. "Our first priority is to try to keep it out of Texas. However, if it is found here, we plan to be able to detect and control it quickly."

"We are also ramping up a sustained public information campaign to inform Texas hunters and the general public about CWD," Cook added. "While the situation does require informed vigilance, Texans should look forward to a good hunting season this fall. Deer diseases have been around for a long time; we should not let this one compromise a centuries-old tradition in our state."

Texas has already suspended the importation of elk and several species of deer, and is working with deer breeders in the state to set up a voluntary monitoring program to test for the disease in private facilities.

This month officials began testing deer showing possible CWD symptoms, and TPWD is drafting a plan for its field employees to be on the lookout for deer exhibiting symptoms that meet the clinical profile of CWD and to start sampling hunter-killed deer on wildlife management areas and state parks this fall

"The name Chronic Wasting Disease indicates animals wasting away, and that is typical of what you see with CWD-infected deer," said Gary Graham, Ph.D., TPWD wildlife division director. "But, just because an animal appears to be skinny or malnourished does not mean it has CWD-drought, overpopulation and other factors can produce the same appearance."

There is some good news from the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), which for decades has tested imported livestock and game animals for diseases like brucellosis or tuberculosis. TAHC Veterinarian Kenneth Waldrup, Ph.D. said the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab in College Station got a grant last year for equipment to diagnose scrapie, a similar disease that affects sheep. Waldrup said the new gear also works to test for CWD, and the lab is in now certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be able to process CWD samples. Officials say the Texas lab should soon be able to handle more than 500 samples per week, with the ability to confirm or deny the presence of CWD in a particular sample within three days.

After last week's discovery, New Mexico officials promptly closed the state to any importation of deer or elk. Texas took a proactive step, and since March 11 has suspended the importation of elk, mule deer and white-tailed and black-tailed deer. Dozens of other states have taken similar action. CWD outbreaks in free-ranging deer have been detected in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin Wyoming, and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. As a preemptive measure, New Mexico officials said they may consider regulations to restrict the importation of sport-harvested deer or elk, when nearly all other states are focusing on restricting the importation of live, captive-raised deer for breeding facilities.

CWD is in the family of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). The disease is found in infected animals' neural tissue such as brains and spinal cords, as well as eyes and lymph nodes. The TSE in domestic sheep is called scrapie, and in cattle it's bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Similar diseases in humans include Creuzfeldt-Jacobs Disease (CJD) and its new variant, kuru, and fatal familial insomnia. CWD should not be confused with BSE, scrapie or CJD.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said there is no scientific evidence CWD can infect humans. (After more than 16 years of monitoring in the affected area in Colorado, no disease has been detected in people or cattle living there.) However, the WHO also says no people or animals should consume any part of potentially CWD-infected deer or elk. Hunters are advised to wear latex gloves when field dressing game, to de-bone all meat and avoid consuming any neural tissue, such as brain or spinal cords of animals.

With approximately 4 million animals, Texas has the largest population of white-tailed deer in the nation. In addition, about 19,000 white-tailed deer and 17,000 elk are being held in private facilities. To know if CWD is present in captive herds, TPWD and Texas Animal Health Commission are working with breeders to monitor their herds.