Re:1700 Mad Elk killed, to stop spread of CWD

Posted by Mike Kremer on Mar 15, 2004 at 14:33

Re: Wyoming (US) Elk Dying (corrected) (Amaranth Rose)

Monday, December 18, 2000 Alanna Mitchell, research by Ken Rubin Toronto Globe and Mail
Sources: WHO / Cervid Council of Canada

A federal agency has slaughtered 1,700 domesticated elk in a bid to stop the spread of the elk version of mad-cow disease at six Saskatchewan farms. Every animal on the infected farms, plus those sold from them as long as three years ago, is to be killed. The elk are bred for human consumption of their meat and immature antlers. The slaughter is by far the largest of its kind. The government will not name the farms.

The disease, officially known as chronic wasting disease, has the potential to damage Canada's billion dollar domestic elk and deer industry if left unchecked. At its theoretical worst, it could sow the seeds of a public-health crisis that could last for decades.

There is so far no evidence that the fatal, brain-wasting illness is transmissible to people [wrong]. Nor is there any sign that the elk version can jump to cattle [wrong] and then to humans, although researchers are still investigating. [How? No one knows if it would look different from sporadic CJD -- webmaster. ] Officials cannot say whether cattle and the infected elk were raised in adjacent fields.

The order comes in the wake of a directive from the World Health Organization stating that products from any animal carrying anything resembling mad-cow disease must not be consumed. The aim is to make sure that the ailment does not enter human food through elk meat products or health-food supplements containing the product known as velvet antler.

"It's a reasonably harsh policy," said Brian Peart, the senior veterinarian at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who sets policy on the outbreak. "That's partly to make up for what we lack in science."
Experiments are being conducted in the United States in a bid to understand some of the basic ways the disease works. The United States is the only other country where chronic wasting disease is known to exist.

Farmers receive $4,000 for every animal killed, plus a fee for disposing of the bodies. Most of the elk are worth twice that or more. "If they are infected, we want to get rid of them," Mr. Buy said. "We want to take care of the reputation of the herd and not take risks with the safety of the people around."

Chronic wasting disease, or mad-elk disease, is one of a family of fatal, untreatable illnesses known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies or TSEs. It is a sister to mad-cow disease -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE -- which has broken out in Europe and which led to the slaughter of 4.3 million cattle there after it was shown to have been transmitted to humans.

In humans, the ailment, which invariably kills as it eats away at the brain, is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The European type, thought to infect humans who eat nerve or spinal tissue in beef products from an infected animal, is called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It has killed 89, most of them in the U.K.

Canada's 53,000 domesticated elk are raised primarily for the blood-rich, nerve-filled velvet that grows on the males' heads every year as immature antlers. While the growing antlers are still tender to the touch and soft, farmers anesthetize the elk, saw the soft antlers off and dry them out. The next year, the males grow them again. Female elk do not grow antlers.
It is a lucrative business. Prices per kilogram to the farmer in recent years range from $240 in 1995 to about $100 now. Mature bull elk are capable of producing 45 to 88 kilograms a year.

Last year, Canada produced roughly 52 tonnes of velvet antler from both elk and red deer. Much of the Canadian velvet goes to Asia, where it is prized as a remedy for arthritis and other ailments. It is also used as an aphrodisiac. The velvet market in North America is growing, Mr. Buy said. It is increasingly common to be able to buy powdered velvet antler in Canadian health-food stores and even pharmacies.

Canadian elk are also raised for meat and are marketed as a low-fat, healthy red-meat alternative to beef. Elk steaks and elk pate are often found on restaurant menus in western provinces.

This outbreak of the elk disease, the worst in Canada's history, began in February with a single animal that appeared to be affected, Dr. Peart said. The elk show the infection in a number of ways: starving to death after the nerves in their mouth and esophagus stop working, breaking their necks because they are so unco-ordinated they plow into fence posts, getting pneumonia when the food and water they try to ingest goes into their lungs instead.

As with BSE and CJD, it is not possible so far to diagnose the elk disease in a living specimen. Pathologists examine parts of the brain stem and other bits of the nervous system to check for an abnormal, stringy protein in the infective agent, called a prion, that marks the disease.

By June, the Canadian government, unsure what to do, had quarantined a large infected herd of 400 in Saskatchewan. It is the herd renowned for providing award-winning stock for other farms in the province.

The government was shocked at the outbreak. Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, along with health and industry officials and the provinces, had developed a plan in early February to combat mad-elk disease, an outbreak was just a vague fear at that point. The agency didn't have a policy to handle an outbreak as serious and widespread as the present one. Canada has had only two previous cases of mad-elk disease among domesticated elk: in 1996 and in 1998.

In October, after much deliberation and a trip to Colorado to visit the world's leading experts on chronic wasting disease, the Canadian government opted to treat mad-elk disease as if it were mad-cow disease.

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