Chronic wasting disease cases on the rise

The region has seen a recent spike in the number of deer with chronic wasting disease. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, tests for chronic wasting disease came back positive for 14 deer in Frederick County and two deer in Shenandoah County.

Those figures are up from nine deer, all in Frederick County, last year. Prior to that, there was not a single year in which more than three deer came back positive with chronic wasting disease.

Chelsea Faller, a wildlife disease biologist for the department, said that the recent increase in cases has come because the disease has been spreading from West Virginia. Chronic wasting disease has been in West Virginia since 2005 and Virginia since 2009, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

When the disease first came to the state, Faller said, “a lot of those animals just walked over the border and then got shot by hunters or hit by cars.”

“But now that it was established in Virginia, it’s starting to slowly spread up there,” she added.

The department has been trying to contain the disease to the region and limit its spread.

Chronic wasting disease is a “prion disease,” a type of disease that results in brain loss. Prion diseases are always fatal and remain in the body for a long time before symptoms emerge, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC states that chronic wasting disease likely spreads when animals come into contact with bodily fluids from infected animals.

Faller said that the department’s increase in the bag limit on Sundays has resulted in a younger deer population in the region. Chronic wasting disease develops slowly in animals, so that change prevents the deer from developing full-blown symptoms of the disease like weight loss and excessive salivation.

“[The deer] often won’t live long enough to develop full symptoms,” Faller said. “Which was the objective.”

During the late stages of the disease, infected animals spread the disease more than they do in early stages.

“Once an animal has hit an end stage, it’s just kind of spewing those infectious prions everywhere,” Faller said.

Faller added that the department has enacted restrictions to deer transports in an effort to keep all of the chronic wasting disease within a containment area of Clarke, Warren, Frederick and Shenandoah counties.

Under those restrictions, hunters cannot transport the brain or spinal column of a deer outside of the containment area. Those are the most infectious parts of a deer that has chronic wasting disease.

Additionally, some states have deer importation policies that will prevent people from importing parts of a deer from a region with chronic wasting disease.

As a whole, it is unclear whether chronic wasting disease can be transferred to humans. Some recent research has suggested that macaque monkeys could get the disease from eating the muscle meat of an infected deer.

That suggests that humans may be able to get the disease, Faller said, because of similarities between the monkeys and humans.

Because of the uncertainty, the World Health Organization recommends that people avoid eating meat from infected deer.

The only way to check if a deer is infected is to have it tested, Faller said.

During the first two Saturdays of general firearms season, hunters are required to bring the head of deer they hunt to be tested. Outside of those days, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers locations where people can have their deer tested as well.

It takes between three and four weeks for those results to come back.