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Game Changer… Chronic wasting disease found in Mississippi deer
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Shock. Disbelief. Denial. Anger. Acceptance. Get busy. This pretty much sums up my range of emotions after the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks released a statement that a 4-year-old buck tested positive for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in Issaquena County last week.
I don’t just study deer, I’m an active participant in the deer lifestyle. Delicious, free-range, organic venison is a staple on my family’s supper table. Regrettably, I’m now facing all the questions my colleagues who live in infected states have been facing and wondering where we go from here.
CWD affects members of the deer family: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou. It always kills the infected animal. CWD is in a class of diseases called “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies,” that ultimately cause many holes to form in the brain -- hence, the name spongiform, or sponge. Infected deer lose weight and appear to just waste away.
A tiny misshapen protein called a prion causes the disease. This mutated protein actually causes other proteins to become misshapen, too, and that’s how the disease grows in an animal. A deer can be infected with these prions for months or years without showing any symptoms. Most deer found with signs of CWD are adults over 2 years of age. It takes that long for the infectious prions to multiply to the extent that the brain suffers severe damage.
The disease is transmitted from deer to deer through the exchange of bodily fluids, most likely saliva. Therefore, officials with Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks immediately halted supplemental feeding in the containment zone (Claiborne, Hinds, Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren and Yazoo counties). Supplemental feeding doesn’t cause CWD, but it certainly can facilitate its spread when deer eat from the same feeder.
Of course, we don’t want any disease that hurts Mississippi’s deer population, but there’s another reason people are vested in understanding this disease. Scientists don’t know for sure if humans can contract the disease from infected venison. Although there has never been a reported case of this problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend we exercise caution and never consume a deer that tests positive for CWD.
State wildlife officials don’t know how the disease came to Mississippi and may never have an answer. They are implementing a CWD action plan that involves extensive sampling to get an estimate of the infection rate, as well as how far infected deer are found from the hot zone. We hope that very few deer will be infected and the spread of this disease will be slowed or stopped altogether. Some states effectively controlled the spread of the disease because they caught it early. But in other states, it had spread too much for effective containment.
Watch for many more articles in Extension Outdoors on CWD. In the meantime, we need to wait, learn and support the state officials as they implement their management plan.
To everyone who hunts deer, manages deer or is simply a deer enthusiast, remember Feb. 9, 2018. That’s the day everything changed. In some way, CWD will be a part of our lives from now on. And so it begins.
Editor’s Note: Extension Outdoors is a column authored by several different experts in the Mississippi State University Extension Service.