USDA takes steps to battle CWD

Chronic wasting disease survey and certification program in the works
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The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget to launch a national chronic wasting disease study and CWD herd certification program. The certification program and study are aimed at supporting the captive deer and elk industry in the United States and reducing CWD in captive herds. If the study and program are approved, participation will be voluntary.

Dr. Randy Pritchard, a veterinary medical officer with USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services who focuses on CWD, says he hopes the certification program and survey will be approved by fall 2005. "There is not a lot of information available for this industry," he said.

First detected in 1967, CWD has been found in members of the deer family, which include white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk. To date, the disease has been identified in 13 states (see map) and two Canadian provinces.

In April, APHIS announced it was seeking OMB approval for a study that would collect information, through the National Animal Health Monitoring System, on the health and management practices of up to 5,600 cervid producers. "All indications are that it will be approved," Dr. Pritchard said.

If given the green light, the study will describe the farmed/captive cervid industry and identify the most efficient ways to contact producers for outreach purposes. In addition to other information, APHIS will track how long particular herds have been monitored for CWD.

"It is really important that people know that this is a voluntary study and that it is completely confidential," Dr. Pritchard said. "They won't be giving us any identification information. There will be no way to tie this back to an individual."

The agency will also use the collected information to prepare descriptive reports and information sheets that will be disseminated to cervid producers, stakeholders, academia, and other interested parties.

Dr. Pritchard says APHIS hopes to tie the survey to the national herd certification program, which is also awaiting approval from the OMB. The proposed rule on this certification program was published in the Federal Register on Dec. 24, 2003. "There were numerous comments from that, and it has taken awhile to sort through all of those," Dr. Pritchard said.

Dr. Dean Goeldner, APHIS CWD program coordinator, says that the agency has reviewed the comments and made some changes to the proposed rule. He says the final rule is still a few months away from being published.

Jurisdiction over captive deer and elk varies from state to state, and several states already enroll deer and elk herd owners in voluntary state certification programs. The proposed national herd certification program will recognize state programs that meet equivalent requirements, and allow cervid owners who reside in states without equivalent certification programs to directly enroll in the national certification program. The goal is to ensure that interstate movement of captive deer and elk does not spread CWD.

The national program will focus primarily on animal identification, regular CWD herd surveillance, testing of animals that die in monitored herds or are sent for slaughter, and limiting of new acquisitions to animals from herds that are also enrolled in the program. State and federal agencies will work together to trace the movements of animals with CWD and identify animals and herds that were exposed to them.

"I think this national program is very important, and the reason it is important is it would help standardize the approach taken by individuals states. It offers states a blueprint on which to build their programs," said Dr. William Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota. "It would really facilitate the whole interstate movement of these animals."

The proposed national program would not apply to animals being held for CWD research purposes, but to all other types of captive deer and elk. Most captive deer and elk are farmed, raised either for sale as meat, for sale as breeding animals, for harvest of antler velvet, or for hunting on private game facilities. A smaller number of captive deer and elk are maintained in zoos, other exhibitions, or research facilities.

Linking the CWD survey and herd certification program is commonsense, according to Dr. Pritchard. "The national certification program would be an ideal time to do this survey," he said. "Most of the time, the questionnaire is going to be administered by a field veterinarian, so our hope was that they would already be on the farm for the certification program."

Producers will be able to go through the certification process but skip the survey, if they so desire, and vice versa.

Although APHIS expects both the certification program and study to be given the go-ahead, it may move forward with the study if that is approved first. Staff at APHIS' CWD program have received a barrage of questions from the public, many of which they have not been able to answer because of a lack of data.

"We searched for answers to some of those questions and found out pretty quickly that those answers are not available, at least on an national level," Dr. Pritchard said. "We don't have a lot of knowledge about this industry."

Information collected through the survey should help.