By DOUG GRAVES
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Earlier this month the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) confirmed a positive case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a captive deer. The state is taking quarantine action to control spread of the disease, and there is no evidence that CWD has affected the wild deer population in Ohio.
The positive sample was taken from a single buck on a hunting preserve in Guernsey County and tested as part of Ohio’s CWD monitoring program for captive whitetail deer operations. The animal was transferred from a captive breeding facility in Holmes County just days before it was harvested.
“Both the hunting preserve and the breeding farm are under quarantine and are subject to intensive monitoring and sampling protocols,” said State Veterinarian Dr. Tony Forshey. “The quarantine will remain enforced until the state is satisfied that disease transference can no longer occur between captive operations.”
According to the ODA, as of January at least 22 states and two Canadian provinces have reported cases of CWD, also referred to as “zombie deer disease.” Symptoms include weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination and abnormal behavior like stumbling and trembling (hence, the “zombie deer disease” label).
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes, CWD is an infectious disease that results in slow progressive deterioration of the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body until death results. Like the colloquially named “mad cow” disease, CWD is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow’s” is bovine, or BSE).
Encephalopathy is a disease that affects the brain. Spongiform means it results in holes that makes the brain look like a sponge. These diseases are transmissible because they are likely caused by an infectious agent called a prion.
“While the confirmed case is unfortunate, this proves the necessity of testing and monitoring the health of captive deer populations in Ohio, in order to monitor the health of the animals and to manage exposure to diseases,” Forshey said. “ODA will work with our state partners and continue to take whatever steps necessary in order to manage CWD and prevent exposure to Ohio’s wild deer population.”
ODA regulates Ohio’s captive whitetail deer facilities and monitors the health of animals through regular testing of deer at both farms and hunting preserves. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife conducts regular surveillance throughout the state to monitor the health of its wild deer population.
To this point CWD has never been confirmed in Ohio’s wild deer population.
CWD is deadly in deer, elk and moose, but the CDC states there is no evidence CWD can be transmitted to humans. In Canada, however, researchers have recently expressed concerns that the disease could infect people who eat deer, elk, moose or other animals that carry the infectious prion.
Mark Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, thinks because CWD is still a newly discovered condition, it may evolve rapidly. “It’s only a matter of time before a CWD prion emerges that can do the same thing and infect a human,” he said.
All authorities agree that hunters who harvest deer and elk in affected areas should get a sample tested before grilling up any venison steaks, and discard the meat if it tests positive for the disease.