ATLANTA — Across the U.S., a mysterious disease is killing deer, slowly. It eats holes in their brains and the animal wastes away. The process can take months, even years. But once the animal dies the disease lives on.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, isn't new but the threat to Georgia is. New research suggests the mad cow disease-like malady could impact monkeys. The threat to humans is unknown.
"It's a slow and cryptic disease and we don't really know the long-term effects of it on the deer population," said Georgia DNR's deer biologist, Charlie Killmaster.
Killmaster explained there is no blood test for CWD because it attacks the nervous system. They test for it by taking the lymph nodes from the neck of a dead deer.
The DNR spot-checks deer killed by hunters and brought to processing facilities across the state. Killmaster said the unknown impacts of the disease mean wildlife managers are on guard.
"We've never had it jump from a deer to a human to date, but we don't know that it can't, either," Killmaster said.
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CWD spreads easily through urine, saliva, and the nervous system of an infected animal, dead or alive.
If a hunter harvests a deer in one location and discards the bone and brain tissue in another, that can spread the disease. But CWD is tough to diagnose because it could take more than a year for symptoms to show.
"Overtime it's going to lead to a degeneration of that nervous tissue, that brain tissue and once that happens you can see a whole suite of abnormal behavior," explained Mark Ruder, with the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Ruder said CWD appears to have a strong species barrier, and the disease has not been found in humans or domestic animals. But Canadian researchers found evidence the disease impacted monkeys that ate CWD infected deer meat over a period of time.
"It shows that there's potential and we should be vigilant," Ruder said.
The disease has not been spotted in Georgia. Killmaster said hunters need to be aware of the areas testing positive for CWD.
"It's still safe to consume venison but you have to be aware of these potential risk factors in an area that has chronic wasting disease," Killmaster said.
Warning from our northern neighbor
Tennessee wildlife managers found the state's first positive case of CWD nearly a year ago. Since then, 193 deer tested positive. Tennessee's Wildlife Resources Agency said this hunting season that number will rise.
"Since December when we found CWD in our midst it has become a new normal for hunters unfortunately," said TWRA spokesperson Jennifer Wisniewski. "If you look at pockets of CWD that has sprung up across the country they're not contiguous, so a lot of it has been due to the transport of deer by people."
Tennessee law enforcement agencies now post officers on bridges and near interstates to watch for hunters transporting potentially infected deer across state lines. Tracking and testing for the disease cost valuable resources and time.
Hunters may have unknowingly help spread the disease, but wildlife experts said they can also help stop it by hunting down deer in known infected areas. They're encouraging hunters to harvest more deer in CWD positive zones, and have it tested by TWRA to make sure it's safe.
"The higher the population the greater the chance the disease will spread," explained TWRA biologist Chuck Yoest. "I would just recommend to other states that they go out of their way to detect it as early as possible."
Georgia's DNR said citizens are one of their greatest tools in detecting the disease.
"Notify us if you see a deer that is acting strangely or appears to be sick the public is our best resource for locating the clinical animals," Killmaster said.
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