Saskatchewan

Record number of chronic wasting disease cases confirmed in Sask. last year

There were 349 confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease in Saskatchewan last year — the highest number of confirmed cases the province has ever recorded in a single year.

Fatal neurological disease found in members of deer family

The province hopes to bolster its ability to test for chronic wasting disease in Manitoba deer by building a new lab in Dauphin. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

Saskatchewan saw the highest number of confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease the province has ever recorded last year, according to the Ministry of Environment. 

The province recorded 349 confirmed cases of the fatal neurological disease, which affects members of the deer family, in 2018, said Iga Stasiak, a wildlife health specialist with the Ministry of Environment.

In comparison, a report released by the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in February says there have been a combined 497 confirmed cases between 1997 and 2017.

"From what I've seen, in the last two years we've seen a lot of concern from various stakeholder organizations, hunters and the general public," said Stasiak.

"We're also seeing the disease in parts of south central and eastern Saskatchewan, where it hasn't been previously been detected."

The progressive disease can affect deer, elk, moose and caribou and spreads through bodily fluids. 

Stasiak said one of the reasons for the higher number of reported cases is that there were 2,000 carcasses submitted last year for testing, which is significantly higher than usual.

Nevertheless, Stasiak said there's a growing concern around the disease, because it can affect a herd's population over time. It takes two or three years for an infected animal to die, which means the full impact of chronic wasting disease won't be felt until years after an animal contracts it.

A report from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative includes a map of confirmed chronic wasting disease cases in Saskatchewan from 2000 to 2018. (Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

The disease is impossible to eradicate once it has become established in an environment, like it has in Saskatchewan, according to Stasiak.

An elk farm in the White Fox area of Saskatchewan, about 14 kilometres north of Nipawin, was shut down in 2008 because of a CWD outbreak. All the animals were killed and the farm was left empty for months.

But new elk were brought in and the farm was reopened.

Risk management

With the increase in confirmed cases, Stasiak said the province is working on a management strategy that focuses on reducing the spread of the disease. 

She said part of that strategy is awareness and education. The province is advising hunters to avoid moving deer carcasses long distances. They should also make sure carcasses that are disposed of end up in an approved landfill instead of the landscape.

We don't know if there's potential for transmission to humans. All we can say is that the risk is very likely to be low, but it's not zero.​​​- Iga Stasiak, Ministry of Environment

If a hunter needs to transport a carcass, Stasiak said hunters should be sure it's double bagged and wrapped to prevent a possible contamination.

She said hunters are also being encouraged to avoid practices like baiting and feeding, which can bring large groups of deer together and increase their chances of being exposed to the disease.

Risk to humans

Stasiak said there is currently no confirmed risk to humans who consume an animal infected with chronic wasting disease, but more research is needed.

"There have been no documented cases of disease in humans, but there is some concern related to the fact that CWD is in the same family of diseases as mad cow disease, and it's a poorly understood infectious disease," she said.

"So we don't know if there's potential for transmission to humans. All we can say is that the risk is very likely to be low, but it's not zero."

More information about chronic wasting disease and precautionary measures people can take to prevent it from spreading can be found on the province's website.

About the Author

Cory Coleman is a reporter, web writer and associate producer for CBC Saskatchewan. Have a story idea? Email cory.coleman@cbc.ca

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