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Chronic Wasting Disease in Deer

Georgia DNR Taking Steps to Protect Against Chronic Wasting Disease

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources began a five-year survey in the fall of 2002 in an attempt to determine if Georgia's white-tailed deer herd may have been infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). While DNR currently has no evidence that the disease has made it into our deer population, discoveries of the disease in Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia and other states have shown that no state should consider itself immune. To survey the deer herd, DNR will attempt to collect approximately 700 samples of central nervous system tissue from hunter-harvested deer annually. Samples will be tested at a laboratory in Athens to determine if any of these animals show signs of infection.

You should not be surprised if you aren't familiar with CWD, it has only reached national prominence in recent years although researchers have know of the disease for about 30 years. The disease was previously known only in western states of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming (endemic area); however, it suddenly turned up in routine samples taken in Wisconsin in 2001. This alarming turn of events got national attention primarily for two reasons. Unlike the spread of West Nile Virus which is gradually being detected further and further west, CWD had traveled a great distance from the endemic area (where it had been known to exist in a somewhat natural environment) with no warning signs. With no live tests, no vaccines, no cure and a disease that always kills animals that are infected, conservation agencies are concerned the disease could ravage deer populations in the eastern US. Further compounding the problem is that deer populations in the east may be worse suited to naturally survive the infection due to naturally high deer densities (causing more rapid spread of disease from animal to animal) and more wooded habitats making sick deer harder to detect.

CWD is one of a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies or TSEs. These diseases can be given from one animal to the next and may not cause the death of these animals for several years. Similar diseases are known to occur in cattle (mad cow disease), sheep and humans. Within an infected animal the disease causes proteins to mutate and congregate in the brain of the animal. Holes form in the brain around these congregations causing animals to behave abnormally and ultimately die. The best protection for any deer herd is to prevent the animals from being exposed.

DNR's surveys began in 2002 and include statewide collection of hunter-harvested animals and obviously sick animals. Sampling for the first year included specific sites in Dawson, Harris, Macon, Marion, Oconee and Toombs Counties. After the first sampling year, it was determined that statewide sampling would be more appropriate.

Even though DNR is not expecting to find animals testing positive for CWD, Georgians will benefit from knowing that our deer are being sampled. If CWD is detected during the survey, Georgia will likely benefit from the proactive survey and can take steps to control the disease. DNR is asking Georgians to help protect against the disease by reporting any deer that exhibit signs of excessive salivation or urination, head tremors or emaciation to your local DNR office. Hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike can also help by informing anyone who may consider illegally importing or buying deer about the risks of CWD and its potential impact to Georgia.

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