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Dr. John Rheney

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An article in USA Today attracted my attention. It was titled “Zombie Deer.”

I immediately knew what it was about before reading a sentence. Chronic Wasting Disease has been slowly spreading across the deer herds in western states for a couple of decades. States that have allowed the transportation of “trophy” bucks from other regions of the country have fallen victim to this disease as well.

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We can all give a big round of applause to our S.C. Department of Natural Resources for forbidding any deer from other states to be stocked into our herd. Those that have tried have paid fines into the hundreds of thousands and have had every deer in their fenced enclosures destroyed.

DNR took it a step further and outlawed deer pens except for about a dozen that were grandfathered in. This basically took away any incentive for someone to bring an out-of-state buck in for breeding purposes since he would simply wander off.

Here are excerpts from a USA Today story and some facts about Chronic Wasting Disease.

An infectious disease deadly in deer has spread to 24 states, and experts warned that the ailment – unofficially dubbed "zombie" deer disease – could one day hit humans.

CWD has afflicted free-ranging deer, elk and/or moose in 24 states and two Canadian provinces as of January, the CDC said.

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"We are in an unknown territory situation," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told USA Today.

Recently, Osterholm testified before his state lawmakers, warning about possible human impacts.

"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," he said. "It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."

This is similar to the situation with "mad cow" disease in the 1980s and 1990s in the United Kingdom, when there was public doubt that it could spread to humans. According to a British news outlet, 176 people died in the U.K. in the 1990s because of "mad cow" disease.

No cases of CWD have been reported in humans, but studies have shown it can be transmitted to animals other than deer, including primates, according to the CDC.

For humans, eating infected deer meat would be the most likely way for it to spread to people, the CDC says.

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About 7,000 to 15,000 animals infected with CWD are eaten each year, and that number could rise by 20 percent annually, according to the Alliance for Public Wildlife, which Osterholm cited in his testimony. Scientists can't say for sure that CWD will cross over and infect humans, but as time goes on and more infected meat is consumed, the likelihood increases, Osterholm said.

CWD is a kind of illness known as prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

In deer, CWD spreads through contaminated bodily fluids, tissue, drinking water and food, the CDC says.

The disease affects deer's brains and spinal cords through abnormal prion proteins that damage normal prion proteins, the CDC said. The cells collect and eventually burst, leaving behind microscopic empty spaces in the brain matter that give it a “spongy” look, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

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Symptoms, which can take more than a year to develop, include drastic weight loss, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, lack of fear of people and aggression.

The disease was first identified in captive deer in the late 1960s in Colorado and in wild deer in 1981, the CDC said. According to the health agency, CWD could be more widespread than 24 states. The closest state to South Carolina that has CWD at this point is Mississippi.

Once CWD is established in an area, the risk can remain for a long time in the environment. The affected areas are likely to continue to expand. Several sources that I read have indicated that soil contaminated by remains of CWD deer can stay infected for several years.

Many state regulations are in place aimed at preventing humans from eating the infected meat.

In North Carolina, anyone transporting cervid (animals from the deer family) carcass parts into the state must follow strict processing and packaging regulations. In North Carolina, anyone transporting cervid (animals from the deer family) carcass parts into the state must follow processing and packaging regulations, which only allow the importation of:

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  • Meat that has been boned out such that no pieces or fragments of bone remain.
  • Caped hides with no part of the skull or spinal column attached.
  • Antlers attached to cleaned skull plates, or cleaned skulls free from meat, or brain tissue.
  • Cleaned lower jawbone(s) with teeth or cleaned teeth.
  • Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides.

Several more quotes from the USA TODAY article:

"If you put this into a meat-processing plant ... this is kind of a worst-case nightmare," Osterholm told lawmakers. Osterholm said more needs to be done in the way of testing deer meat. Though some states test, it needs to be done quicker and with a more robust infrastructure to prevent infected deer from being consumed, he said. "People have to understand the significance of this. We can't wait until we have the first cases coming," Osterholm told lawmakers.

The CDC recommended that hunters test deer before eating meat in affected areas. If a deer looks sick or acts strangely, hunters should not shoot or handle it or eat its meat, the health agency said.

I sometime give our DNR a hard time when I think they have not acted in hunting’s best interest. However, we owe the department and particularly the Deer Management division under Dr. Charles Ruth and previously Daryl Shipes a huge pat on the back for keeping our deer herd isolated and clean.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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