State Veterinarian warns about killer disease that affects moose, caribou
A disease that affects deer species has Alaska's state veterinarian concerned that it might spread to Alaska and infect moose, elk, caribou and reindeer.
Chronic Wasting Disease has not been found in Alaska, but it's been killing wildlife in the Lower 48 and parts of Canada for years.
"It would be devastating for those wildlife populations, because there's little to do to go ahead and try to control that," said Alaska State Veterinarian Dr. Bob Gerlach.
The disease, also known as CWD, was first identified in the late 1960s in northern Colorado, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It has since been detected in 23 states and two western provinces of Canada.
According to the CWD Alliance, "Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a transmissible neurological disease of deer and elk that produces small lesions in brains of infected animals. It is characterized by loss of body condition, behavioral abnormalities and death."
"There's a lot we don't understand about this disease," said Gerlach, who added that the disease is 100 percent fatal in animals that are infected. "Our best way to try to protect the state is prevention."
To do that, commercial producers in Alaska, such as the Reindeer Farm near Palmer, take part in a voluntary program to have their animals tested for CWD whenever there's a death from illness, injury, or when an animal is slaughtered.
"We don't want them to become extinct over a disease that is so transmittable that it could wipe out the entire herd," said Denis Hardy, owner of the Reindeer Farm.
Gerlach says in addition to the testing of commercial herds, the state also does spot checks of wildlife for signs of the disease.
There have not been any confirmed cases of humans becoming infected with Chronic Wasting Disease after eating tainted meat, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement last August cautioning that new research showed that CWD, "poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk."
"It looks like it can be transferred to these monkeys" Gerlach said, "which would be very concerning that the next possibility would be that it could go into a human being."
Cooking infected meat does not remove the potential threat.
"Well, that's the thing," Gerlach said, "cooking doesn't destroy these prions (proteins that are mutated by the disease), and that's one of the biggest concerns we have. It's very resistant to being broken down."
As for his level of concern about the disease reaching Alaska, Gerlach said, "We don't have any wildlife populations that are close to the state border, so I feel comfortable with that. Our biggest concern would be movement of animals or animal products into the state."
Gerlach said Alaska updated its regulations this year to require that any animals in species susceptible to CWD, that are imported to the state, must come from herds that have been certified CWD-free for a five-year period.
The CDC issued these recommendations for hunters in areas where Chronic Wasting Disease has been detected, and Gerlach suggests that Alaska hunters follow them as well, especially when hunting in the Lower 48:
• Do not shoot, handle or eat meat from deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely.
• When field-dressing a deer:
- Wear latex or rubber gloves when dressing the animal or handling the meat.
- Minimize how much you handle the organs of the animal, particularly the brain or spinal cord tissues.
- Do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing.
• Check state wildlife and public health guidance to see whether testing of animals is recommended or required. Recommendations vary by state, but information about testing is available from many state wildlife agencies.
• Strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for CWD before you eat the meat.
• If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, consider asking that your animal be processed individually to avoid mixing meat from multiple animals.
• If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.