Deer Version of “Mad Cow Disease” Found in Midwest

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(Host) Scientists have discovered that deer in Wisconsin have been infected with a fatal brain disease. The illness is similar to mad cow disease and this is the first time it’s been detected in wild deer east of the Mississippi River. The discovery has raised concerns that the deer herd here in Vermont could be at risk.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The incurable illness that strikes deer and elk is called chronic wasting disease. Like mad cow disease, this brain disorder is part of a family of illnesses that kills their victims by forming sponge-like holes in their brains.

Until recently, researchers believed that chronic wasting disease was confined to western states and western Canadian provinces. In those areas, it’s spread from captive herds of deer and elk into wild populations.

John Buck is Vermont’s deer project leader with the Fish and Wildlife Department. He says scientists don’t yet know how the disease spread to the wild deer herd in Wisconsin:

(Buck) "It highlights the mysteries of this disease. We just don’t know that much about it…. And it does highlight the probability that this disease could be easily transmitted if great care isn’t taken by those who are known to harbor it."

(Dillon) Vermont officials have been concerned for some time that chronic wasting disease could spread to the wild from domestic herds of elk or deer.

There are about 50 farms in Vermont where deer and elk are raised. Those animals are supposed to come from disease-free areas. But Buck says that’s not a guarantee that the disease won’t spread here:

(Buck) "It’s always a concern. No test is perfect and so there could always be threat of disease being imported or somehow harbored on a game farm like that, and perhaps spreading to the wild. That’s one of our principal concerns with these operations, is the threat to native species."

(Dillon) Wisconsin’s captive elk herds are also supposed to be disease-free. Investigators are now studying if the disease spread to deer from the elk farms.

The World Health Organization says people should not eat deer or elk that show signs of the disease. Buck says there’s no direct evidence that hunters could contract a human version of the disease from eating an infected animal:

(Buck) "But still, it isn’t something that – just because we haven’t found it – people would feel comfortable in doing so. I think it would have an enormous impact on not only the hunting community, but also the ecological relationship that deer have to our landscape. So it potentially could be devastating."

(Dillon) Even though the disease has spread to wild deer in the Midwest, Buck says it’s too early to order tests of Vermont deer. He says the tests would be very expensive and may not catch a small number of cases in the wild. He says biologists want to wait for more evidence that the disease has migrated further east before testing.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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