HARRISBURG – While there continues to be no known cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, joined by veterinarians and laboratory technicians from the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of Agriculture, is stepping up its efforts next week to verify that fact.

“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 Vern Ross, Game Commission executive director. “We are planning to collect samples from 4,000 hunter-killed deer to have tested for CWD. Last year, we tested samples from nearly 2,000 deer, all of which were negative for CWD.

“By conducting these random tests on hunter-killed deer, we will help to assure ourselves, and the general public, that it is extremely unlikely that CWD is present in the state.”

Game Commission deer aging teams will collect 4,000 deer heads randomly at meat processing facilities around the state beginning on Nov. 30 – the second day of the state’s two-week concurrent rifle deer season. The heads will be taken to the six Game Commission Region Offices, where agency employees and veterinarians and laboratory technicians from the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of Agriculture will collect the samples for testing.

The CWD tests on the deer samples will be conducted at the state Department of Agriculture’s State Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg and the New Bolton Center, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory. Results are expected in 2005.

CWD testing of healthy appearing hunter-killed deer or elk is available through the New Bolton Center. Hunters who wish to have their deer tested may do so for a fee by making arrangements with the New Bolton Center Laboratory (610-444-5800).

The Game Commission collected blood samples from the 34 hunter-killed elk during the elk season (Nov. 8-13). The Game Commission also collected brain and tissue samples from roughly 20 of the elk, and anticipates that the remaining samples will be submitted by taxidermists for those elk hunters planning to have their trophies mounted.

The elk samples will be tested for CWD at the New Bolton Center. Under a contract with Penn State University, the samples also will be tested for bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Bob Boyd, assistant director of the Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the Game Commission will release the elk and deer test results as soon as they are available.

Since 1998, the Game Commission has tested about 350 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior. No evidence of CWD has been found in any of the 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 and elk. 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, 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 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 should not kill the animals that appear to be sick.

“We count on hunters to be our eyes when they head out to hunt deer,” Ross said. “With the help of the nearly one million deer hunters who go afield, we can cover a lot of ground.

“Hunters 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 perspective: we’ve been living with rabies – which does affect people – in Pennsylvania since the early 1980s.”

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

Currently, the Game Commission, the Governor’s Policy Office, state Department of Agriculture, state Department of Health, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have finalized a response plan in the event CWD is found in Pennsylvania. The interagency task force focused on ways to prevent CWD from entering the Commonwealth and to ensure early detection should CWD enter the state, as well as laying out a comprehensive response plan to contain and eradicate CWD should it be found within the state. The task force will review and update the response plan as new information about CWD becomes available.

“We are very serious about preventing CWD from entering Pennsylvania,” Boyd said. “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.

“We also are concerned about the potential environmental contamination that could be caused by CWD, as well as the serious economic impact that would result.”

To learn more about CWD, visit the agency’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) and click on “Hunting & Trapping” and then select “Chronic Wasting Disease.”

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