WASHINGTON (AP) - The Food and Drug Administration (news -
web sites)'s top official called Monday for eliminating an illness spreading
through deer and elk populations that's similar to mad cow disease.
Chronic wasting disease is one of a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Unlike mad cow, which can be a transmitted to humans, chronic wasting disease is not consider a threat to human health.
Cattle are only believed to have contracted the disease when injected with the infectious agent in a laboratory, scientists say. Studies indicate cattle are unlikely to contract the disease by natural means.
"We probably should try to eradicate it. There's no reason you couldn't stop it," said Deputy FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford. "It's not something you want in the livestock herds."
Crawford, a veterinarian, is running FDA until a new commissioner is appointed.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (news - web sites), is linked to a human illness called new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the first U.S. case of which was reported last week. The victim, who lives in Florida, is believed to have contracted it in Great Britain. Mad cow disease has never been found in the United States.
Chronic wasting disease was believed until a few years ago to be largely confined to wild deer and elk in a small area of Colorado. But it has now been discovered in wild deer and captive elk herds in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana and Saskatchewan.
FDA is working with the Agriculture Department to determine how extensively chronic wasting disease has spread, and is considering new regulations, Crawford said.
"There's every reason to be concerned that we control it and confine it now that we have the opportunity," said Crawford.
Experts believe the disease spread from Colorado, where it was first identified in 1967, through the shipping of captive elk to farms and ranches in other states and Canada. Wildlife then contracted the disease from the farm-raised elk.
The federal government, which leaves the regulation of wildlife to the states, needs to work with state governments to restrict the shipping of deer and elk, said William Hueston, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety. There are "a patchwork of regulations across the nation," he said.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission held an emergnecy session last month to bar the importation of white-tailed deer because of the threat of chronic wasting disease.
The Agriculture Department agreed last year to reimburse elk ranchers for animals that were destroyed because they were either infected or exposed to the disease.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman discussed the disease Monday with Wisconsin state officials during a visit to the state Monday.
"We're working with the states to find the best ways of dealing with it. Obviously, we would be working with our federal counterparts on it, too," said Veneman spokesman Kevin Herglotz.
There is no known cure or treatment for chronic wasting disease, and the only way to determine for certain that an animal is infected is to kill it and examine its brain.