Working to Prevent CWD

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The Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources are working together to develop a plan to help prevent chronic wasting disease from coming to Illinois.

A task force, comprised of key staff from both agencies, is developing the plan which will address surveillance of wild deer and captive herds, import and export of deer and elk and a planned response to a potential chronic wasting disease outbreak in Illinois.

"I want to emphasize that chronic wasting disease has not been found in Illinois at this point," said DNR Director Brent Manning. "But it has been found in nearby Wisconsin and we want to take all steps necessary to prevent the spread of the disease into Illinois."

"The Department of Agriculture will continue to work closely with DNR to monitor both captive and wild herds for chronic wasting disease," said Illinois Agriculture Director Joe Hampton. "This could affect not only sportsmen, but also a developing industry of farm-raised deer and elk grown for food."

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease found in deer and elk. The disease attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose coordination and eventually die.

Chronic wasting disease recently was discovered in 10 deer in southern Wisconsin. CWD is not known to be contagious to livestock or humans.

The World Health Organization has said there is no scientific evidence that CWD can infect humans. For safety's sake, however, experts suggest that hunters should avoid eating the brain, spinal cord, eyes, tonsils, spleen or lymph nodes of white-tailed deer and elk because the infectious agent tends to concentrate in those tissues. The World Health Organization has recommended no part of deer or elk that show evidence of CWD should be eaten by people. DNR has long advocated good hygiene by hunters, including the wearing of rubber gloves when handling deer.

CWD has been diagnosed in wild, free-ranging deer and elk primarily in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, and in adjacent Nebraska. Last week it was discovered in mule deer in western Colorado. There has been no general caution issued against eating deer or elk in the infected Western areas. CWD also has been found in farmed elk in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Scientists test for CWD by examining the brain tissue of animals. Illinois livestock regulations require that any captive cervid (member of the deer/elk family) that dies from an unknown cause and that has exhibited a neurological disorder must be tested for CWD, and programs are in place for establishing Certified Monitored CWD herds of captive deer and elk. Illinois has participated in a "targeted surveillance program" for CWD in wild deer for about 5 years, since that approach was first proposed by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, a diagnostic and research service which investigates wildlife diseases. In this program, deer that exhibit symptoms that could be caused by CWD are submitted for testing by an approved laboratory. During the fall 2001 shotgun deer season, Illinois officials also systematically sampled hunter-harvested deer from around the state for CWD testing. To date, no animals from Illinois have tested positive for CWD, but surveillance efforts for the disease are being expanded in response to its close proximity in Wisconsin.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture maintains a voluntary database of captive elk and deer herds in the state. Owners of such herds are encouraged to contact the Department of Agriculture at 217/782-4944 so that they can be notified of any pertinent animal disease advisories including news concerning chronic wasting disease.

Researchers are just beginning to understand CWD. It is likely caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. The means of spread for CWD is unknown, but could involve close contact between animals or animals exposed to a CWD-infected environment. Usually months to years pass from the time an animal is infected to when it shows signs of the disease. Classic CWD signs in deer and elk 18 months or older include poor body condition, tremors, stumbling, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, and excessive thirst or urination.