Madison – Even though little is known about chronic wasting disease, University of Wisconsin-Madison experts said Monday that the outbreak should not dissuade hunters from hitting the woods this deer season.

Panel Findings:

A panel of University of Wisconsin-Madison experts looking at chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer herd said Monday:

It supports the state’s effort to kill 25,000 deer in a 389-square-mile region near Mount Horeb. Human health risk of eating venison infected with the disease is “very, very low.”

Deer hunters should not rely on testing to judge the safety of venison.

Related Coverage Section: Chronic Wasting Disease:

Academics from an array of disciplines agreed that research to date has shown a low probability that people who eat venison could be infected with a human form of chronic wasting disease.

They also said they support the state Department of Natural Resources’ plan to have hunters kill 25,000 deer in a 389-square-mile region of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties in the hope of stopping the spread of the fatal deer disease.

And they called for the creation of a formal chronic wasting disease advisory council, pulling in experts from Wisconsin and beyond, to advise state officials on how to deal with a disease that is likely to be here for years to come.

The panel joined a recent chorus of get-out-the-hunt messages from both the DNR and hunting groups because of fears that a low turnout could push an already booming deer population even higher. The groups have printed brochures, bought billboard space and even have run radio spots during Green Bay Packers games imploring hunters to hunt this year.

With the archery season already in swing and an early gun season beginning in parts of the state on Oct. 24, license sales are down an average of 22%, according to the DNR.

A ‘theoretical risk’:

Led by UW-Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley, the faculty members acknowledged that chronic wasting disease not only poses a threat to deer, but potentially to humans as well.

There is a “theoretical risk” that humans could get a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by eating venison infected with the disease, said Dennis Maki, an expert in infectious diseases and a professor of medicine at UW Hospital and Clinics.

It is not hard for scientists to inject an animal with a prion – the abnormal protein believed to cause a family of diseases such as chronic wasting disease, Maki said. “But on the other hand, it doesn’t occur easily, otherwise we would have found thousands of cases or hundreds of thousands of cases of CJD,” said Maki, referring to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. “Finding it in the meat should be a very, very low risk.”

Yet Maki did not downplay concerns either, noting that Great Britain was slow to attack mad cow disease – a cousin of chronic wasting disease – during the early days of the outbreak.

“Whenever we have taken prion disease lightly, we have been burned,” he said.

The World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer suspected of having the disease; or the brain, eyes, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes or spinal cord of any deer.

Experts weigh in-The panel experts also offered these observations: Leaving the disease alone will only fan its distribution, said Thomas Givnish, professor of botany.

If another case of chronic wasting disease is found 2 miles outside its 10-mile radius near Mount Horeb in western Dane County, the zone where the disease is now located could double within two years, he said.

Deer hunters should not use testing for chronic wasting disease to judge the safety of venison.

Wisconsin officials plan to test about 50,000 deer for the disease this fall, and a private company also plans to sell a test to hunters. But Robert Shull, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Madison, said the tests are designed only to detect the presence of prions at a certain point in time.

“There will be some animals that are not positive, but have CWD,” Shull said.

A female whitetail can transmit chronic wasting disease a few miles, and wider ranging bucks can spread it 20 miles. A bigger concern for now is game farms, which Givnish said can essentially “paratroop” the disease over long distances. When the disease was first discovered in Wisconsin on Feb. 28, it was the first time it showed up east of the Mississippi River.

The experts agreed that trafficking of elk and deer on Wisconsin game farms has to be stopped until a viable live test is developed. The only way to test today is in the brains and lymph glands of a dead animal.

Wisconsin Agriculture Department spokeswoman Lisa Hull said restrictions on transport are now in place.

Emergency rules approved shortly after discovery of the disease in Wisconsin require that deer and elk farmers not move animals off farms unless they are in the state’s testing program. The program says animals that die or are slaughtered must be tested.

Currently, only one deer – a whitetail from a farm in Portage County – out of 699 on deer farms has tested positive for the disease, Hull said.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 15, 2002.