Deer Brain Disease Moves West in PA

May 18, 2015

CWD Management Area 2.
Credit PA Game Commission

  A communicable brain disease similar to mad cow was detected in south central Pennsylvania wildlife.

The two most recent cases were detected in roadkill found along Bedford County highways in the western portion of Disease Management Area number 2, according to officials with the The Pennsylvania Game Commission. The discovery forced the state to slightly expand the watch area, which already includes portions of Somerset, Cambria, Huntingdon, Bedford and Blair counties. 

Chronic wasting disease attacks a deer’s brain and is always fatal. It bears similarities to mad cow in bovines and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans.

“The trouble with it is it can be transmitted directly through animals to animal contact or indirectly through the food or soil that has been contaminated through bodily fluids,” said Tom Fazi, spokesperson for the game commission's Southwest Region Office.  “It’s not like a virus that can be killed. … [It] will last for years and years in the environment (and) in the soil, so it is a very hard thing to eliminate.”

The science on how CWD spreads outside of animal to animal contact is still being researched.

Deer harvested in any of the state’s three disease management areas must either be processed in that area or all portions of the brain, spine and spleen must be removed before being transported.

Management area No. 2 is the only area where CWD has been found in the wild deer population. In the other two areas CWD was found in captive deer, which were all euthanized.  It is unclear how CWD entered Pennsylvania but other states including Maryland, Wisconsin and Colorado are already infected.

“Where they initially came from does not matter at this point because it is certainly on the landscape and once it’s out on the landscape," Fazi said. "Any deer could potentially come in contact with this disease.”

Hunters in any of the three management areas must have their kills checked. None have tested positive since Pennsylvania officials first detected the disease in 2012.

Officials don't condone the consumption of tainted meat, though they acknowledge there is no evidence to suggest the disease can jump to humans.

“It’s not like we can just put something out and give them a vaccine,” Fazi said.  “It’s not an easy to solve problem and we are going to be facing it for a long time.”

If the disease spreads, not only would it have a devastating impact on the number of deer in the state, but Fazi said communities that rely on annual winter hunts would also suffer economically.

Deer hunting generates nearly $1 billion statewide, according to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Fazi said deer could be infected for as many as 12 months before showing any signs.  Near the end of the course of the disease, animals look emaciated, have trouble holding their hear and ears upright and may struggle to walk or stand normally. Anyone who sees a deer that looks like it might be sick is encouraged to contact the nearest game commission office.

Update:

At 8:14 am on Monday May 18 this story was updated to clarify the prevalence of CWD in captive deer populations compared to wild deer populations