A fatal brain disease afflicting white-tailed deer has made its way to New York’s doorstep.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Wednesday announced a confirmed positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in a white-tailed deer on a Warren County hunting preserve, just five miles from the New York State border.
Pennsylvania state wildlife officials euthanized the remaining deer on the preserve and said CWD was not detected in any of the other samples. The department has quarantined the preserve for five years and is undertaking further contact tracing to determine if there any other CWD deer in the area.
CWD, sometimes called zombie deer disease, was first found in Pennsylvania in 2012. When a deer with the disease is found, the state has a set of regulations it implements in that area, including restrictions on using deer-urine-based attractants, feeding free-ranging deer, rehabilitating injured deer, and transportation of deer taken by hunters.
“Chronic wasting disease has increasingly plagued state wildlife and agricultural agencies with no sustainable solution in sight,” said Krysten Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist and Cornell University who studies CWD. She noted that New York managed to eliminate CWD after it was detected within the state in 2005 and afterward implemented new regulations, including banning importation of live captive deer and intact deer carcasses. “This recent discovery will require additional surveillance on both sides of the border to determine if the disease breached the fence and is present in wild white-tailed deer.”
Among the changes proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in its new deer management plan is the banning of all deer-urine-based attractants, which have been linked to the spread of CWD.
Chronic wasting disease is “an untreatable and fatal brain and nervous system disease found in deer, elk, and moose.” Symptoms are slow to present themselves and many infected deer appear perfectly healthy. When they do appear, symptoms include:
- loss of bodily functions
- extreme thirst
Chronic wasting disease in humans
No cases of CWD have been reported in humans, but there is reason for concern. According to the CDC, “there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions.” Multiple experiments with transmission to primates have yielded different results. Consequently, precautionary measures by hunters are advised in areas where CWD is present. These include boning out all meat and disposing of remains in a landfill.
CWD as a disease
Chronic wasting disease is “is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy” disease similar to mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. In each, the cause is “prions,” a pathogenic type of protein that induces abnromal folding of the normal proteins in the brain which leads to brain damage. Prions are shed in feces, urine and saliva, and can remain present in the environment for years, including in the scavengers who feed on infected deer and in plants that take root in soil where prions are present.
CWD is progressive, always fatal, and there is no treatment.