- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2019

Wildlife officials in Maryland and Virginia have issued warnings and confirmed new cases of chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disease that affects deer and other species, as hunting season moves into high gear across the country.

The brain-wasting disease has been found in free-ranging deer, elk and moose in 277 counties in at least 24 U.S. states, including Virginia and Maryland, as of August, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cases of chronic wasting disease or CWD have been reported in Allegany County in Maryland and Culpeper, Frederick and Shenandoah counties in Virginia, officials said.

“The potential impacts of CWD to the Virginia white-tailed deer population are a serious concern, though the disease has not been shown to pose a health risk to humans or domestic animals,” the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said.

CWD is a disease caused by prions, abnormal infectious proteins, that can pass between deer through saliva, feces, urine and through contaminated water or soil.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recommends that humans avoid exposure to the disease and consuming meat from infected deer.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said there is a chance that CWD could potentially make the jump from animals to hunters and others who come in contact with them.

“There is a real possibility that there could be transmission to humans,” Mr. Osterholm said.

He said prion diseases have been able to spread between species, pointing to “mad cow disease” in England as an example. Mr. Osterholm also noted CWD prions are found in the muscles of the lymphatic system, so cooking the meat does not eliminate the risk. Prion strains also change as they pass through animals, he noted, commenting on a concern that they could mutate to the point they could affect humans.

The CDC says that while there is no strong evidence for human transmission, some research suggests that the CWD prion can infect squirrel monkeys as well as laboratory mice that carry human genes.

“It is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions. Nevertheless, these experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD,” the CDC reported.

An estimated 7,000 to 15,000 animals infected with CWD are consumed by hunter families each year, according to the Alliance for Public Wildlife. This number continues to rise up to 20% every year, the organization asserts.

States also have different regulations and precautions to contain CWD. Lawmakers in Nevada this year banned the importation of certain animal body parts that contain large amounts of prions, including the brain and spinal cord, into the state, according to the Associated Press.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is urging hunters and the public to report deer, elk or moose that appear to be sick or behaving abnormally to contact local wildlife authorities.

The department confirmed last week chronic wasting disease in a deer for the first time in a hunting area about 12 miles west of Bondurant. The hunting area is closer to wintering elk feedgrounds, causing concern that the disease could spread to elk populations.

Animals infected with CWD could exhibit signs of drastic weight loss, drooping ears, lack of fear of people, stumbling, excessive thirst or urination, drooling and listlessness.

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in captive deer in the late 1960s at a Colorado research facility and in wild deer in 1981.

The disease spread to surrounding areas in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming by the 1990s and has been found in an increasing number of states, including across the mid-Atlantic since 2000.

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