Mad Elk Disease Spreading -
Now Found In Nebraska
By Emily Hoffman
From Discovery News Briefs

An illness similar to mad cow disease appears to have spread to a captive Nebraska elk herd from elk and deer in bordering states, according to wildlife researchers.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found already in herds of elk and deer in South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Saskatchewan, Canada. The disease is a form of spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), connected to the so-called mad cow disease that recently has plagued the United Kingdom.
Although researchers say there is no indication yet that CWD can infect humans -- unlike mad cow disease -- the sickness is of concern. In the midwestern United States, elk and deer are consumed much like beef is elsewhere.
Nebraska, along with other states involved, have drafted emergency guidelines to try and halt the spread of CWD, according to one wildlife official.
Agencies in Colorado and Wyoming have alerted hunters to watch for sick animals. Nebraska will do the same if they feel there is a danger of CWD infecting the wild herds. The agencies warn hunters to avoid animals that appear ill, to wear gloves when they dress out their animals, and to avoid eating the spinal cord and the brain.
"Of course we don't want people exposed to something where there could be a potential problem. But, as far as we know, it can't be transmitted (to humans)," said Dr. Elizabeth Williams, professor of veterinary sciences at the University of Wyoming.
Kevin Church, a wildlife research supervisor with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says, "It's one of the emerging concerns among wildlife professionals. The recent discovery of the disease in South Dakota and now in Nebraska has led wildlifers to express their concerns about the captive breeding industry."
CWD has puzzled experts since its discovery in Colorado thirty years ago. Animals infected with CWD are emaciated, weak and show behavioral changes. The disease, which causes sponge-like holes in the brain, can only be diagnosed by examining a dead animal.
"It's possible this is scrapie (another variant of TSE found in sheep) that got into the deer; it's possible it's a sporadic disease ... we really don't know," says Williams.
One theory set forth by Valery Geist, a specialist on deer biology and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, is that elk and deer chew on the bones of sheep that have been infected with scrapie.

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