A release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on the afternoon of June 15, 2023, has confirmed the first known case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Florida — more commonly known as the 'Zombie Disease.' During routine surveillance activities, the case was detected in a road-killed, 4.5-year-old white-tailed deer in Holmes County.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), CWD is a contagious disease believed to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion, and it most commonly affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, caribou, and moose.
Often fatal, CWD affects the brain and central nervous system, causing drastic weight loss, stumbling, coordination problems, listlessness, drooling, and decreased fear of humans, among other symptoms in animals. Signs of the disease usually appear between 1.5 to 3 years after initial exposure, and CDC scientists believe it's spread through environmental exposure to infected food and drinking water.
The FWC states that controlling the spread of CWD is difficult once it becomes established in a natural population.
Because prions shed by infected deer continue to exist in the environment and can be spread quickly and directly from animal to animal, the best chance for controlling the Zombie Disease is by acting quickly after it's been detected to prevent other animals from becoming infected — by utilizing multiple management strategies in an effort to control the spread.
The release states that the FWC and its agency partners take CWD very seriously, and have implemented a comprehensive response plan in response to the Holmes County discovery.
As a part of the plan, the FWC will collect samples from specific established zones to further investigate the spread of the disease. Initial sampling results will inform resource managers so they can react with the appropriate management strategies.
The FWC has been monitoring free-ranging deer since 2002 to detect CWD. During that time, they claim to have tested approximately 17,500 hunter-killed, road-killed, and sick or diseased deer for the disease.
“With the continued support of Governor DeSantis, the Florida Legislature, and hunters across the state, we have taken significant steps to prevent the spread of CWD,” said FWC Executive Director Roger Young. “Working with FDACS and our other partners, I’m hopeful that our combined efforts will limit the effects this will have on Florida’s deer population and preserve our exceptional hunting opportunities for future generations statewide.”
“We take very seriously our responsibility to prevent, detect, and respond to animal health issues in Florida – all to safeguard our agriculture industry and our world-renowned wildlife and natural resources,” said FDACS Commissioner Wilton Simpson. “Ensuring the health of Florida’s deer population is a team effort, and we will continue to work diligently with our state and federal partners to respond.”
Though contagious to other wildlife, there is currently no scientific evidence that the Zombie Disease can be transmitted to humans or livestock under natural conditions. However, the CDC does not recommend consuming meat from animals that test positive for CWD or from any sick animals. The FWC also provides information about what precautions should be taken when pursuing or handling deer that may have been exposed to CWD.
While Florida is the most recent of 31 states to detect the disease in their wildlife, The first case of CWD in North America was described in mule deer in Colorado in 1967. The Zombie Disease has also been confirmed in four Canadian provinces, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and South Korea.
The FWC is asking anyone who sees a sick, abnormally thin deer or finds a deer dead from unknown causes to call the CWD hotline, 866-CWD-WATCH (866-293-9282), and report the animal’s location.
The FWC along with its partners — the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study — will continue to update the public as more information becomes available. For more information, visit MyFWC.com/CWD.
Article by Rachael Volpe