HARRISBURG – Chronic wasting disease, a form of “mad cow” disease which affects deer and elk, has been found in New York State , but there are no signs of the fatal condition in Pennsylvania as yet, state game commission officials recently announced.

Game Commission executive director Vern Ross said his agency has completed testing of thousands of samples of deer and elk taken by hunters in the 2004 hunting seasons, and found no suspected or confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Samples were tested from 3,699 deer and from all elk taken in 2004. All the tests for CWD were negative.

“We are pleased to announce that Pennsylvania continues to have no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD-infected wild deer or elk in Pennsylvania , and we are doing everything we can to insure that it stays that way,” Ross said.

New York officials announced on March 31 and April 2 that CWD was found in two white-tailed deer in two captive herds in Oneida County in north central New York State .

Since April 2, according to news reports, three more deer infected with CWD have been found in Oneida County , raising the total to five.

Representatives of the game commission and the state Department of Health listened to a conference call March 31 with New York officials about the first CWD-infected deer found.

Several Pennsylvania agencies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recent completed a response plan to contain and eradicate CWD in case it is found in or near the state.

Oneida County is outside the 50-mile radius that would trigger activation of the response plan, the plan still requires Pennsylvania to examine its plans and ensure the state has the latest information on the New York outbreak.

Agencies have begun meeting to review regulations and policies to see if any areas need to be strengthened.

According to an April 7 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York officials are still trying to determine where the animals came from or whether they had contact with any wild deer. Both captive herds were destroyed, and state officials plan to kill 400 wild deer living in the area near the herds.

Tests on deer and elk for CWD are carried out by the New Bolton Center , the University of Pennsylvania ’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory in Chester County , and by the state Department of Agriculture’s State Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg .

Costs for conducting the tests were covered by a $54,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The samples tested were from deer killed by hunters during the two-week rifle deer season and elk killed in elk season. This was the fourth year of testing elk and the third year of testing deer; a total of 162 elk and 6,259 deer have been tested so far. .

In addition, tests were conducted since 1998 on more than 350 deer which died from unknown causes or were exhibiting abnormal behavior, but no evidence of CWD was found.

“We are very serious about preventing CWD from entering Pennsylvania ,” said Bob Boyd, who oversees wildlife disease issues for the game commission.

“Some scientific modeling suggests that, if nothing is done to contain an outbreak of the disease, CWD could cause a local deer population’s demise within 20 to 25 years in states with high-density deer populations, such as Pennsylvania.”

Symptoms of CWD include poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movements, rough-hair coat, decreased appetite, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling and eventually, death.

There is no evidence CWD can be transmitted to humans.

Anyone who sees deer or elk behaving oddly, appearing to be very sick or are dying for unknown reasons are urged to contact the nearest game commission regional office. Individuals should not kill the animal. The regional office in Franklin can be reached at 432-3188 or toll-free at 877-877-0299.

CWD was first identified in Colorado in 1967. Since then it has been found in Illinois , Kansas , Minnesota , Montana , Nebraska , New Mexico , Oklahoma , South Dakota , Utah , Wisconsin and Wyoming , and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan .

CWD and related diseases – as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans – are thought to be caused by prions, protein molecules that fold in abnormal ways and begin damaging neighboring protein molecules in the brain. This leads to widespread voids in brain tissue, giving the appearance of a sponge.

Prion-caused encephalopathies can be spread by ingesting meat from infected animals, but can also appear spontaneously. The practice of including animal flesh in cattle feed is thought to spread BSE among cattle.

Eating infected beef is thought to spread one form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Another form of human spongiform encephalopathy called kuru was once found among certain ethnic groups in New Guinea and was apparently caused by ritual cannibalism there. Kuru has gradually disappeared over the many decades since cannibalistic practices were abandoned.