Edmonton Journal Publishes "Opinion: Succumbing to Mad Hype Disease"

December 1, 2014

December 1, 2014
By Barry Chernuka, Edmonton Journal

Since the discovery of “mad cow disease” in 2003 and the subsequent turmoil for the beef industry, people are understandably wary of a similar disease in deer and elk that has been found in Alberta and Saskatchewan: chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Recently, Alberta MLA David Swann warned that CWD could “devastate” the agriculture industry, which comes on the heels of new rules for elk farms.

The hype has surpassed the reality.

There are hundreds of deer and elk farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan that produce velvet, meat and antlers. Though it’s nowhere near as big as beef, it’s still a thriving rural industry worth many millions of dollars every year to our agricultural economy.

CWD was first discovered in the U.S. the 1960s in deer at a university research facility. It is similar to mad cow and scrapie, but there’s no evidence that it affects humans. It can kill deer, but its long incubation time often means that the infected animals will die of something else first, and CWD itself does not devastate infected populations. It was first found in free-ranging animals in Saskatchewan in 2000 and Alberta in 2005.

Should we be worried? Fortunately, things are under control — at least, on the farm.

There’s been mandatory surveillance on Alberta deer and elk farms for CWD since 2002. All animals over one year of age at death must be tested for the disease. In Saskatchewan, there’s been a surveillance program since 1997.

If a farm tests positive for CWD, it can be quarantined and depopulated of animals, with an indemnity paid to the farmer for the taking of his property for disease control. The federal government has culled more than 7,500 farmed elk and deer since 1996.

The spread of CWD is a contentious issue. Some point to deer and elk farming because the disease has, on a handful of occasions, appeared on farms. But it’s worth noting that these farms are the only areas seriously being tested for CWD — the presence of CWD could be a result, not a cause.

While there is mandatory surveillance on deer and elk farms, there’s less testing being done of free-ranging animals. How do we know where CWD is and isn’t in free-ranging animals without more testing?

Fortunately, CWD is rare on farms and probably among free-ranging animals, too. In Saskatchewan, only 197 free-ranging animals out of 34,000 tested positive for CWD between 1997 and 2007 — fewer than one per cent of the animals tested. There hasn’t been a case of CWD in farmed elk in Alberta in more than a decade.

No one wants CWD to become more prevalent. To accomplish this, we need to improve in several ways. More surveillance of the disease is needed among free-ranging animals. As many deer and elk mortalities as possible should be tested for CWD, not just in Alberta and Saskatchewan but in neighbouring provinces as well.

Additionally, part of the trouble with tracking CWD is that there is no accurate live-animal test yet. The government should invest, as farmers have done, in developing such a test or, better yet, a vaccine. This will allow for easier diagnosis of the disease in free-ranging animals and thus easier control.

What we need less of is scaremongering.

Barry Chernuka is director of the North American Elk Breeders Association.


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