More Texas deer infected with chronic wasting disease

HARLINGEN — The number of Texas deer with confirmed chronic wasting disease has apparently doubled.

The Texas Animal Health Commission had been monitoring a deer ranch in Medina County and testing found 13 new cases of the fatal disease at the captive breeding facility.

“A three-and-a-half year old doe tested positive in April, and so the facility was quarantined and additional testing was done and more CWD was found,” Tom Harvey, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman, said today.

Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious fatal disease that strikes down hoofed ungulates like deer, moose and elk. It has been found in 21 states and four Canadian provinces, and wildlife officials and hunter advocacy groups say transporting pen-raised deer puts the state’s wild deer herd and the $2.2 billion Texas deer hunters spend annually at risk.

Deer ranchers say their growing industry is worth $1 billion annually, a crucial economic boon for rural areas of Texas. They insist they have measures in place to minimize the possibility of CWD spreading to wild deer populations.

The new CWD cases now make 25 deer found to be infected in Texas. The first case was discovered in a wild mule deer near the New Mexico border in 2012, and another wild mule deer with CWD was diagnosed in Hartley County this year.

The other 23 cases involve pen-raised deer.

The TPWD last month passed new restrictions on the movement of pen-raised deer inside the state designed to curb the spread of CWD. The new regulations were opposed by deer ranchers, many of whom walked out of the TPWD hearing in protest.

Texas deer ranchers primarily raise the deer to improve their genetic stock and produce trophy antlers for hunters who pay to hunt on fenced-in game ranches.

One of the difficulties for both wildlife officials and deer ranchers is a deer can be infected with CWD for years but show no symptoms. New tests are being developed to diagnose CWD, but the only sure way is to euthanize the animal first and take samples of tissue.

While there is no evidence CWD poses a health threat to humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend not to consume meat from infected animals.

The fight against CWD in Texas received a boost last week when researchers at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston announced an $11 million grant to study the disease.

The funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will allow scientists to study the pathogenesis, transmission and detection of prion diseases such as chronic wasting disease.

Prions are the protein-based infectious agents responsible for a group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which includes mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose.

All are fatal brain diseases with incubation periods lasting years or even decades.

“Prion diseases are rare but because of their incurability, lethality and potential to spread from animals to humans, we need to better understand them from how they replicate to the development of efficient detection methods,” said Dr. Claudio Soto, director of UT’s George and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research in Alzheimer’s disease and Related Brain Disorders.