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Oregon acts fast to block disease

Import ban designed to keep out an illness killing elk and deer

Oregon has permanently banned the importation of live deer and elk from states and Canadian provinces with documented cases of chronic wasting disease, a fatal wildlife illness.

The ban, enacted Friday by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, also forbids importing some parts of the carcasses of deer and elk that were killed in places where the disease Ñ commonly called CWD Ñ has been found.

A degenerative nerve disease similar to mad cow disease, CWD was first recognized in mule deer in Colorado in 1967 and seemed to be confined to the Rocky Mountain and Plains states. But it's been spreading in the past few years, although scientists still haven't learned why.

'It's not here, and we're trying to keep it out,' said Ann Snyder, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The disease has been found in wild deer and farmed elk in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, as well as in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.

In Oregon, 15 farms raise elk for sale as breeding stock or for the meat. Snyder said many of the farm owners were involved with the rule-making process. 'They don't want to lose their animals to this, either,' she said.

The disease also could have an economic impact on deer and elk hunting. According to a 1996 federal survey, hunters in Oregon spend $614 million annually on expenses related to hunting trips.

Wildlife officials in Oregon have been watching for the disease to crop up in the state since 1997. This fall, state wildlife field biologists visited hunting camps to check deer and elk that had been killed. The tissue samples taken will be tested for chronic wasting disease.

By December they hope to gather 500 samples, which will be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.

Chronic wasting disease belongs to the group of illnesses that includes scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows (mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. There is no known case of someone being infected with CWD after eating game meat.

However, the World Health Organization and Health Canada, that nation's federal health agency, have advised against eating venison or any part of an animal showing symptoms.

Infected deer and elk lose weight and show listlessness, lowering of the head, blank facial expression and repetitive walking in set patterns, according to the USDA. Infected elk may be hyperexcitable.

This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioned two studies that will gauge whether there is any risk to humans from CWD.

'This is no longer an isolated animal disease in just certain parts of the country,' said Murray Lumpkin, principal associate commissioner for the FDA in Rockville, Md. 'As it has spread farther and farther, the potential exposure of people goes up. É We need to find out as much as possible.'

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