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Misconceptions About Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD Sample

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been a hot topic in most southeastern states, including Alabama, over the last several years. Alabama’s first detection of CWD occurred in a hunter-harvested deer taken in Lauderdale County during the 2021-22 hunting season. The deer was sampled and tested as part of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s (WFF) disease surveillance efforts. Through continued sampling initiatives, WFF employees have had significantly more opportunities to interact with hunters in Lauderdale and Colbert counties, as well as other areas of Alabama, and has provided a great deal of information about the disease to the public through public meetings, media outlets, the website, and social media postings. Even with the increased flow of information between WFF and the state’s hunters, WFF staff continues to work to correct misinformation and misconceptions about CWD.

Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding CWD is the disease itself. Many hunters still confuse CWD with hemorrhagic disease (HD). The diseases are completely different, but the similar acronyms (CWD and HD) cause confusion. HD is a viral disease that is spread only through small, biting insects. HD is not contagious and does not spread directly from deer to deer. As with most viral diseases, HD develops rapidly and runs its course in just a few days. The overwhelming majority of deer in Alabama that contract HD will recover with no ill effects, but some will die from HD each year. Those that survive develop antibodies to the virus and are less susceptible to the disease in the future. In Alabama, HD is typically an issue from mid-summer until cold weather eliminates the midges for the year. It is important that hunters understand that deer herds in other states experience losses from HD in ways different from what is seen in Alabama, and that large-scale losses from HD are not occurring in our state.

CWD is a contagious, fatal neurodegenerative disease caused by the transformation of normal prions (proteinaceous infectious particles) into infectious, self-propagating, abnormal prions. These abnormal prions concentrate in the brain, central nervous system tissues, and some lymph tissues. The infectious prions are shed though saliva, feces, urine, and other bodily fluids, as well as decaying carcasses of CWD infected animals. The disease can be transmitted anytime an infected deer makes contact with other deer and can also be transmitted indirectly as deer pick up prions shed at feeders, mineral licks, licking branches, scrapes, etc. CWD has a long incubation period of 12 months or longer and is progressive, meaning most deer that have CWD are likely to not show outward symptoms of being sick. This is why testing of samples from hunter-harvested deer is so important in monitoring the spread and prevalence of the disease within the deer population. You cannot tell by looking at a deer if it has CWD; the disease is detected by testing tissue in a laboratory setting.

Probably the second most common misconception or conspiracy theory that is mentioned during discussions of CWD is that the WFF stands to gain revenue from finding CWD. Hunters in Lauderdale and Colbert counties have seen many new WFF staff faces since the first positive was discovered. The assumption for many is the agency hired new people with money the Federal government sent WFF because of CWD. In reality, the new faces are veteran staff brought in from WMAs and programs in other parts of the state to assist with the increased sampling efforts. Sampling efforts are just added to the many other tasks and responsibilities these biologists, biologist aides, and wildlife technicians have on their agendas during the hunting season. Increased use of our resources to manage the issues that come with a contagious and fatal wildlife disease means that CWD is an expense to our agency and a peril for our deer herd. There is no benefit.

Unfortunately, CWD does not appear to be going away. State wildlife agencies in other parts of the country have been dealing with the challenges of managing CWD-positive deer populations and the hunters who chase them for decades. Making efforts to stay informed with the most current and scientifically-sound information related to the disease and its management will be crucial to maintaining trust between the agency tasked with managing the resource and the hunters who utilize it. A mission of WFF is to manage wildlife resources for the sustainable benefit of people in Alabama, and we will continue our work to effectively mitigate CWD to ensure a robust deer herd for future generations.