HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Game Commission employees, joined by veterinarians and laboratory technicians from the state and U.S. Departments of Agriculture, today began collecting tissue samples from 500 randomly selected hunter-killed deer throughout the Commonwealth to test for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

“Currently, there are no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD-infected deer or elk in Pennsylvania, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that it stays that way,” said Robert Boyd, assistant director for the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. “By conducting these random tests on hunter-killed deer, we will be able to assure ourselves, and the general public, that it is extremely unlikely that CWD is present in the state.”

Game Commission deer aging teams randomly collected 500 deer heads at meat processing facilities around the state. The heads were taken to the six Game Commission Region Offices, where agency employees and veterinarians and laboratory technicians from the state and U.S. Departments of Agriculture are collecting the samples for testing.

The CWD tests on the deer samples will be conducted at the state Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services laboratory in Harrisburg. Testing will cost the Game Commission $35 per deer. Results are expected in early 2003.

Boyd noted that earlier this month, the Game Commission collected brain, tissue and blood samples from all 61 hunter-killed elk taken during the elk season, which was held Nov. 18-23. Under a contract with Penn State University, the samples have been sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Aimes, Iowa, to be tested for CWD, as well as bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Because of the additional tests, the Game Commission will be paying $75 for each elk tested.

“Test results on the hunter-killed elk will be available in a few months,” Boyd said. “Since Pennsylvania is not an area where CWD has been identified, samples from our state are not considered as high of a priority as the tens of thousands of samples from states where CWD has been identified, such as Wisconsin and other western states.”

The Game Commission will release the elk test results as soon as they are available.

Boyd also noted that the Game Commission is exploring the possibility to conduct CWD tests on a random selection of road-killed deer during the spring of 2003.

Since 1998, the Game Commission has tested more than 200 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior. No evidence of CWD has been found in any of the more than 200 animals submitted to the state Department of Agriculture for testing.

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

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. 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. However, as it progresses, infected animals become very emaciated and their hair has a very disheveled appearance. Drooling is sometimes apparent. Deer often hang out near water, which some consume in large amounts. They also may use an exaggerated wide posture to stay standing.

Hunters who see 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 are not to kill the animal.

“We’re counting on hunters to be our eyes when they head out to hunt deer this fall,” Boyd said. “With the help of the hundreds of thousands of rifle deer hunters afield, we can cover a lot of ground.

“Hunters heading out for the upcoming season should be mindful of wildlife health issues, but no more so than in recent years. We must keep the threat posed by CWD in perspective. At this point, we have no evidence that CWD is in Pennsylvania, or that it poses health problems for humans. To put the issue in context: we’ve been living with rabies – which does affect people – in Pennsylvania since the early 1980s.”

Hunters should only shoot animals that appear healthy and behave normally. They should always use rubber gloves for field dressing. These are simple precautions that hunters can follow to ensure their hunt remains a safe and pleasurable experience.