EDMONTON – Twenty-four more cases of chronic wasting disease have been found in Alberta’s wild deer, the Sustainable Resource Development of Alberta announced Tuesday.

The results, from a 2007-2008 testing program, bring the province’s count of the disease up to 53 cases.

CWD affects the central nervous system and causes infected animals to slowly waste away. Evidence suggests it does not affect humans.

Darcy Whiteside, spokesperson for Sustainable Resource and Development, said the department has consulted with communities such as Provost, Oyen and Wainwright, where many of the diseased deer have been detected.

“The next step is really making hunters aware there are opportunities here,” he said, referring to an ongoing hunting program the government implemented in 2005 when the first diseased deer was found 30 kilometers southeast of Oyen.

The program aims to reduce deer populations and track the disease.

“It’s a contagious disease, so any animal we can take away from the population is a plus,” he said, adding the province was seeing excessive growth in the number of wild deer even before CDW.

But Whiteside said the new numbers are not huge.

“We’re still seeing very low percentages,” he said. “There were more deer tested this year.”

The disease first appeared in the ’70s in Colorado. Whiteside said both mule deer and white-tail deer have been affected in Canada.

“Saskatchewan this year confirmed the first case in wild elk in their province,” he said. “We do know from cases in the U.S. (that) moose can be affected and there’s no reason to think caribou wouldn’t be either.”

Robert Hudson, acting director of the Alberta Veterinary Research Institute, said the disease is relatively new and research is limited on how it’s trasmitted.

“It can be disturbing, all these unknowns,” he said, but going by evidence south of the border, “it appears the things we feared most – human cases, effect on wild populations – hasn’t been quite as alarming as people might’ve suspected.”

“But with all of these things, they take a long time to evolve and you can never be sure.”