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Monday 22 July 2019

Ireland on alert for 'zombie' disease that attacks deer's brains

WILD AT HEART OF CITY: Deer roaming in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, one of two herds managed by the Office of Public Works. Picture: Kyran O'Brien
WILD AT HEART OF CITY: Deer roaming in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, one of two herds managed by the Office of Public Works. Picture: Kyran O'Brien

Alan O'Keeffe

Experts are assessing the risk of 'zombie deer' disease entering Ireland, after cases were reported in Norway, the US and Canada.

Known as chronic wasting disease (CWD), the contagious illness attacks deer's brains, leaving them severely emaciated and struggling to walk, giving them a zombie-like appearance.

US scientists said infected deer may appear healthy while incubating the disease and symptoms can include the animals being less afraid of people, increasing the likelihood of them being shot by hunters and eaten by humans.

Hunters in North America have been advised, as a precaution, to avoid eating parts of deer known to harbour the CWD agent, such as the brain and spinal cord, in areas of 26 states where the disease has been identified.

Officials in the Department of Agriculture here are liaising with their counterparts in the European Union to monitor the progress of the disease internationally.

"The department is aware of chronic wasting disease, its current global distribution and the evolving disease dynamics, including its detection in Norway in April and May 2016," said a spokesman.

"Assessment of the potential risk of the spread of this disease to Ireland, like the rest of the EU, is an evidence-based process."

This process involves "using the latest scientific advice furnished by the European Food Safety Authority's [EFSA] panel on biological hazards," he said.

"Ireland's controls will be proportionate to the assessed risk... CWD has not been detected in Ireland, and no specific measures to address any potential/speculative risks have been considered necessary at this time."

The Office of Public Works manages two wild deer herds - one at Doneraile Court in Cork and the other at the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

An OPW spokesman said a deer keeper in the Phoenix Park monitored health issues and advice was received through UCD's School of Biology and Environmental Science.

Kilkenny farmer Kevin Mahon said he was one of more than 300 Irish farmers who were involved in deer farming but he and most of the others had to switch to alternative types of farming because they were unable to compete with New Zealand venison being 'dumped' on EU markets.

He said New Zealand farmers sold off meat cheaply because they were mainly concerned with selling the velvet from deer antlers. It is regarded as an aphrodisiac in the Far Fast but 'velveting' from live deer is banned in the EU.

The European Commission requested that the EFSA recommend activity to prevent the disease entering the EU or spreading between countries. The Commission asked the safety authority to assess any new evidence on possible public health risks.

Sunday Independent

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