HARRISBURG – Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was not detected in samples taken from hunter-killed deer during the state’s 2007 hunting season, according to Dr. Walt Cottrell, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife veterinarian.

In 2007, 3,800 samples from hunter-killed deer were tested, and CWD was not detected. This marked the fifth year for testing hunter-killed deer. In total, nearly 18,100 deer have been tested. CWD was not detected in any samples from previous years.

Results showing that the CWD tests of hunter-killed elk from 2007 were all negative were announced on Feb. 13.

“We are pleased to report that Pennsylvania continues to have no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD in wild deer or elk,” Cottrell said. “By conducting these tests from a random sample of hunter-killed deer and on all hunter-killed elk, we help to assure ourselves and the general public that it is unlikely that CWD is present in wild deer and elk in the state.”

The CWD tests on deer and elk samples were conducted by the New Bolton Center, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory. Under a contract with Penn State University, the elk samples also were tested for brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis and found to be free of those diseases.

Costs for CWD surveillance are offset by a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Heads from hunter-killed deer were collected from deer processors by deer aging teams during the two-week rifle deer season. Specific tissues were collected from these heads at Game Commission region offices by agency personnel and Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of agriculture animal health officials.

“The test results are good news,” Cottrell said. “Although CWD has not been found in Pennsylvania, we must continue to be vigilant in our CWD monitoring efforts. The surveillance work we are doing is important for the early detection of CWD. Let’s not forget that CWD has been found in New York and only 26 miles from our state’s border in West Virginia.

“We already are planning to continue random testing of hunter-killed deer and elk during the 2008-09 seasons, and we are pleased that the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of agriculture will continue to play an important role in this disease surveillance program.”

First identified in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects cervids, including all species of deer and elk. It is a progressive and always fatal disease, which scientists theorize is caused by an agent called a prion that is capable of transforming normal brain proteins into an abnormal form and, in turn, destroying brain cells.

There currently is no practical way to test live animals for CWD, and there is no vaccine to prevent an animal from contracting the disease, nor is there a cure for animals that become infected. Clinical signs include poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough-hair coat, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling, and, ultimately, death. There is no evidence of CWD being transmissible to humans or to other non-cervid livestock under normal conditions.

Deer harboring CWD may not show any symptoms in the disease’s early stages. As it progresses, infected animals become emaciated and their hair has a disheveled appearance. Drooling is sometimes apparent. Because they are weakened, they also may use an exaggerated wide stance to stay standing.

Anyone who sees deer behaving oddly, that appear to be very sick, or that are dying for unknown reasons are urged to contact the nearest Game Commission Region Office. Hunters should not harvest deer that appear ill.

“We’re counting on Pennsylvanians to be our eyes when they head afield this summer to enjoy nature,” Cottrell said. “With their help, we can cover a lot of ground.

“All outdoor recreationlists should always be mindful of wildlife health issues, but now more than ever. And we must keep the threat posed by CWD in perspective. As potentially devastating as it could be should it show up, at this point, we have no evidence that CWD is in Pennsylvania.”

For more information on CWD, visit the Game Commission’s website, click on “Wildlife” in the left-hand column, then scroll down and choose “Chronic Wasting Disease” in the “Wildlife Disease” section. Additional information on CWD can be found on the CWD Alliance’s website.

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