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CWD, the “Mad Cow Disease” for deer, hits western Québec

As you may have guessed by its name, Chronic Wasting Disease is no laughing matter.

The disease which affects the deer family only, including elk and caribou, is progressive and always fatal. It’s similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as “mad cow disease” It was first identified back in the 1970’s in Colorado and while not terribly common, mostly stayed south of the Canadian border. But now, it seems Quebec is dealing with CWD head on.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says four more cases have been identified since the first-ever case was found in early September. Since then, the discovery of CWD led to a huge cull of deer in Quebec. It has many worried as it isn’t the easiest thing to get rid of.

“If it does spread here, it’s something that’s fairly hard to remove from the ecosystem, so it’s very concerning,” Keith Fowler of the Quality Deer Management Association told the CBC in October.

The most obvious sign of Chronic Wasting Disease is weight loss, but the animals also become disoriented, grind their teeth, salivate and experience tremors before succumbing to the disease.

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry advisor Chris Heydon says CWD has had a dramatic effect on some regions of the United States.

“It [CWD] has been shown to cause significant population effects in states and provinces where it has been widespread in wild deer populations,” he said. “It would have a significant affect both on populations and Ontario’s strong hunting culture, which is obviously of great concern.”

At a town hall meeting in Grenville, Quebec in September, some local residents criticized the Canadian Food inspection agency for what they felt was a slow response to the burgeoning crisis.

One of the bigger questions about Chronic Wasting Disease is whether or not it can affect humans. At the aforementioned town hall meeting in Quebec, Dr. El Mehdi Haddou, Veterinary Officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said there is “no risk” of CWD being transferred to humans. But a study that came to attention at last year’s North American Deer Summit in Texas casts some doubt on that assertion.

“Results of CWD laboratory challenges of non-human primates are mixed,” the report said. “CWD transferred readily to squirrel monkeys orally (92 percent), but macaques, which are genetically closer to humans than squirrel monkeys, have demonstrated significant resistance, even to direct intracerebral injection. It should be noted, however, that recently macaques were shown to be susceptible to scrapie, but only after an extended, silent incubation of ten years.”

Tim Donges, a branch president with the Quality Deer Management Association, says a human contraction would escalate the issue severely.

“Once the first human is thought to have contracted CWD, we could see fallout in the ag market because of food safety concerns. This is becoming a very serious situation. I do not see a way to stop the spread. The U.S. government has bought deer farms contaminated by CWD and are considered contaminated super sites.”

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