U.S. Struggles to Grasp Chronic Wasting Disease

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - One of the few things known about chronic wasting disease is that the fatal illness is spreading, experts told a Senate panel on Tuesday. The brain wasting disease, similar to mad cow disease, has been found in wild and captive deer and elk in nine U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, but researchers still have little idea how the malady is spread or what threat it ultimately poses to human health.

"We know so little about this disease," said Chip Groat, director of the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey. "We have a long way to go and there will not be any quick fix."

First discovered in captive deer in Colorado in 1967, chronic wasting disease is a progressive neurological disorder that is fatal to deer and elk. A slow disease, with a long incubation period, affected animals may not show symptoms even through they are ill. Eventually they exhibit loss of body condition, behavioral changes, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, depression, and death.

Scientists believe this disease is caused by prions, which are abnormal proteins in the brain that cause similar transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy - known as mad cow disease - in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.

There is no known live animal test, treatment, nor vaccine for chronic wasting disease.

There is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans, but the apparent spread of the disease during the past few years toward the eastern half of the country has caused concern for hunting advocates, as well as state wildlife agencies, and public health and conservation groups.

The disease has now been diagnosed in wild or captive deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, Wisconsin, South Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas and Montana. It has also been found in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. hunter

Federal and state lawmakers and wildlife managers fear the economic impact of chronic wasting disease. (Image courtesy Ohio Division of Wildlife )
State wildlife agencies have scrambled to keep up with the costs of monitoring the spread of the disease and implementing surveillance strategies, according to Gary Wolfe of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a joint project of nonprofit wildlife conservation groups tasked with educating the public about the disease and efforts to combat it.

"Several states have redirected wildlife funds for chronic wasting disease efforts and we are concerned this could have disastrous impacts on other wildlife management programs," Wolfe told the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.

Wolfe pointed to the federal government's failure to fully implement and fund its own strategic chronic wasting disease plan - a failure that has frustrated Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard.

"The plan remains on the shelf collecting dust," Allard said. "It has never been finalized and no reason has been given why."

In June 2002 officials with the USDA and Interior Department presented the plan to Congress - it calls for some $108 million to be spent over three years for federal research and monitoring and for grants to state and tribal wildlife agencies. Last year the plan was submitted to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which must approve the interagency proposal but has thus far failed to do so.

Last year the federal government spent some $22 million on chronic wasting disease monitoring, research and state grants.

Allard says legislation is needed to make sure this plan is enacted and to ensure money remains dedicated to chronic wasting disease and to prevent "a parade of earmarks."

"States are desperate for assistance," he said.

A bill authored by the Colorado Republican authorizes $27 million for the federal government to create a national database and monitoring program to track chronic wasting disease and $10 million for state and tribal agencies.

Allard noted that only $4.2 million of the federal funds spent on the disease last year went to research efforts.

"That seems rather meager considering the implications of chronic wasting disease," he said, citing an estimate that widespread infection of captive and wild animals could potentially cost the U.S. economy $100 billion.

"The only area we have made progress on research is how we dispose of disease carcasses," Allard said.

But Wolfe told Allard that additional legislation is "not what is needed at this point in time" - a view echoed by the other witnesses at the hearing.

"All the authorities necessary to manage this disease exist in the law," said Gary Taylor, legislative director of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "What is most needed are adequate Congressional appropriations to be passed on to the states."

Groat told the committee that federal officials have "not sat still and waited for that plan to be approved." hunter

A deer with chronic wasting disease. (Image courtesy Wisconsin Division of Wildlife )
Both the USDA and the Interior Departments are conducting research into the disease, have doled out funds to states for monitoring efforts and have started the creation of databases to track the disease.

The Interior Department has not taken a position on the legislation, but supports the "concept," Groat said.

John Clifford, associate deputy administrator for National Animal Health Policy and Programs with the USDA said his department "already has the authorities we need."

Cooperation between the two agencies is critical, both federal officials acknowledged.

Russ George, secretary of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, praised the federal agencies for recognizing the "primacy of the states with regard to wildlife management."

"The federal role should focus heavily on additional funding for state efforts delivered through already existing mechanisms," George said. "There is greater responsiveness and interest in cooperating and partnering [by the federal agencies] than I am accustomed to seeing and I believe that will continue."