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Fatal deer disease detected near NY border with Pennsylvania

Cornell Wildlife Health Lab
CWD lab tests are labeled at Cornell University.

A fatal illness called Chronic Wasting Disease which affects white tail deer was detected 5 miles from New York state’s border with Pennsylvania this week. 

It's untreatable and highly contagious to animals like deer, elk, and caribou. The positive case was located at a captive shooting site in Warren County, Pennsylvania. It was taken from the site last December and recently confirmed positive for CWD.

Cornell University wildlife disease specialist Krysten Schuler said on Friday that the protein, or prion, that causes CWD creates a slow death by forming holes in an infected animal’s brain.

“Imagine, like, a slinky or something that has a very specific structure, and you cut off a piece of that or change its shape and it doesn’t fit anymore,” Schuler said. “It just has a shape that isn’t recognized by any parts of the body.”   

The illness develops slowly in lymph nodes and spinal tissue, and can take years before ultimately killing its host. 

Schuler urges hunters and anyone transporting deer to follow New York state’s guidelines, which includes a ban on certain types of imports.

"It goes much faster if the deer is moving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, whether it’s dead or alive, versus one on it’s own two feet walking around," Schuler said. "So I think we need to recognize that humans have a large part to play in this disease."

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said they are working with authorities in Pennsylvania to prevent further spread and contamination where the positive case was found. NY eradicated CWD from within state boundaries since 2005 after a positive case was located in Oneida.

While there are no known cases of the disease in humans the DEC urges caution when handling animals that are susceptible to contracting it. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year that at least half of states in the country have cases of the illness.

“For anybody out there that cares about animals, it’s not a pleasant disease, and we’re seeing increased cases,” Schuler said.

The NYDEC issued a statement on Friday:

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a real threat to New York’s wild deer and moose populations, and the latest detection in Pennsylvania brings the disease to our border. We’re encouraged by the swift actions of officials in Pennsylvania and that CWD was not detected in the other captive deer.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.