WINCHESTER — The deer-killing chronic wasting disease (CWD) hit a record high in Frederick County last year, with 26 new cases reported, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).
CWD is a fatal neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose caused by abnormal infectious proteins known as prions. It is spread by direct contact or environmental contamination. First discovered in the 1960s, CWD has been found in 26 states. It was first identified in Virginia in 2009. Most of those cases were discovered in a cluster near the Virginia-West Virginia border
A total of 68 cases have been confirmed in Virginia. Of those, 61 were in Frederick County, six were in Shenandoah County and one was confirmed last month outside the Shenandoah Valley in Culpeper County, more than 40 miles from the nearest CWD-positive deer in Frederick or Shenandoah counties.
The number of confirmed cases in Frederick County keeps steadily increasing. There were three in 2015, nine in 2016, 14 in 2017 and 26 in 2018.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said Fred Frenzel, a district wildlife biologist with the VDGIF, noting that the deadly disease could be more widespread than tests indicate.
There is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that hunters do not consume meat from deer infected with the disease.
Signs that a deer could be infected include difficulty moving, weight loss and excessive salivation. It can take 18 months to two years before symptoms become obvious. Time between exposure and death is usually one to five years. Testing a deer’s lymph nodes can confirm if it has the disease. This process takes three to four weeks.
Last year, VDGIF sampled 1,570 deer in a Deer Containment Area encompassing Frederick, Clarke, Warren and Shenandoah counties. Deer killed in those counties cannot be taken out of the containment area unless they have been processed as finished taxidermy products or are boned-out cut and wrapped meat, hides or capes with no skull attached, cleaned skulls or clean antlers. After the discovery of the case in Culpeper County, VDGIF began calling it a “disease management area” instead of a containment area.
Because the CWD case in Culpeper was not confirmed until after the end of deer season, VDGIF officials did not have an opportunity to work with hunters to test a large number of deer there.
“Experience in Virginia and other states has shown that it can take several years before the true extent of a CWD outbreak becomes clear,” a VDGIF news release states.
VDGIF will conduct disease surveillance in Culpeper and surrounding counties this spring and summer to make preliminary assessments about the presence of the disease. Methods of sample collection will include working with roadkill collection contractors, responding to calls from the public about sick deer and working with farmers and other landowners who have experienced damage from deer.
At this point, Frenzel said it’s unlikely CWD will be eradicated in Virginia. But the VDGIF will make efforts to contain its spread. He said the disease has been referred to as a “slow motion epidemic.”
VDGIF is in the process of determining the most appropriate containment measures moving forward. According to the news release, these measures may include the creation of a Disease Management Area in Culpeper, carcass movement restrictions, feeding restrictions and enhanced surveillance for CWD. The agency will notify hunters of any changes to hunting regulations in the affected area this summer, and a public meeting will be scheduled in Culpeper to address questions and concerns from the public.
Frenzel said the disease is unlikely to reduce the state’s deer population in the near future because it is slow moving. Infected deer are more likely to be killed by other means, such as being hit by a vehicle or shot by a hunter, before succumbing to CWD. He said it would probably take more than 50 percent of the state’s deer population being infected before CWD starts to have a noticeable impact.
For more information on the disease, visit: dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/cwd.