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First case of chronic wasting disease in Arkansas provides new questions for researchers

Creighton University researcher, Jason Bartz, Ph.D., in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine, studies chronic wasting disease as part of a group of neurodegenerative diseases linked to an infectious protein called a prion.The first confirmed case of chronic wasting disease in Arkansas earlier this year, along with the first identification of the disease in Europe, has added another layer to research on how the disease, deadly to white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and elk, spreads in a wild animal population.

Creighton University researcher Jason Bartz, Ph.D., in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine, studies chronic wasting disease as part of a group of neurodegenerative diseases linked to an infectious protein called a prion.

Bartz said while chronic wasting disease (CWD) is known to spread from animal to animal, little is known about how it has become so widespread in recent years and how isolated cases like the latest one of an elk with the disease harvested in north-central Arkansas can be explained. Prions are carried in an infected host’s blood, saliva and waste, and are able to bind to elements like soil and travel some distance, but the sudden emergence of the disease in geographic isolation from other confirmed cases is vexing.

In Norway on April 4, a reindeer tested positive for the disease, the first case of CWD in Europe and the first case to be discovered in a species other than deer, elk or moose.

Since the announcement of the CWD discovery in Arkansas in February, a total of 79 animals have been confirmed with the disease. CWD is also spreading in Wisconsin, where more than half of the state's 72 counties report infected deer.

“There are a lot of possibilities, but no firm data,” Bartz said. "CWD is spreading to new areas and in areas where CWD has been endemic, the disease is not abating and is, if anything, becoming more prevalent."

First reports of the disease were made in Colorado and Wyoming in the late 1960s. Since then, CWD has spread to 24 states, including parts of the Midwest and as far east as New York. Chronic wasting disease is unique among prion diseases as it is the only one known to be in wild animals. Other prion diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) are found in domesticated animals.

“That also makes CWD difficult to track,” Bartz said. “Really, the next step is surveillance and to determine if there are more animals that have contracted the disease.”

Among animals, prion diseases are relatively more contagious. Prion diseases among humans are not highly contagious and there have been no reported cases of chronic wasting diseases being transmitted from animals to humans. But Bartz said there is still not enough evidence to conclusively determine humans could not contract disease.

“I think being cautious is best in this situation,” Bartz said. “Recommending against consumption of animals that look like they have signs of CWD is a good idea.”

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