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Tuesday, 26 December, 2000, 15:06 GMT
Canada tackles 'mad elk disease'
Elk
The cull is the biggest ever of its kind in North America
By Ian Gunn in Vancouver

More than 1,500 elk are being killed in Canada after an outbreak of the elk version of mad-cow disease.

It is the biggest cull of its kind ever in North America. Elk are farmed in Canada for their meat and parts of their antlers are exported to Asia for traditional medicines.


Everyone recognises the scenario that occurred with BSE...it's never possible for a scientist to say impossible

Brian Peart
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Canada has not been directly affected by BSE so far, and there is no evidence that the elk version can spread to cattle or humans. Even so, government officials say they want to safeguard against the possibility.

However, some critics say the government may be too late, and that people may already have consumed infected products.

Officially the elk are suffering from 'chronic wasting disease'. But its similarity to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has led to the disease becoming more popularly known as 'mad elk disease'.

Severe response

Elk live wild in western Canada, but are also farmed for their meat and antlers. Fourteen elk on Canadians farms have been found with chronic wasting disease in recent months.

Elk
Some elk live in the wild, others are farmed for their meat and antlers
The government has ordered more than 1,500 animals on the infected farms to be killed, their bodies burned and buried.

The authorities say it is a deliberately severe response to a limited outbreak of the disease. Elk farming is a $500m industry in Canada, and the measure is designed to protect the reputation of the industry.

Public health is another issue, because the elk are raised for meat and there are growing questions about whether humans may be at risk.

"Chronic Wasting Disease does not affect humans, but everyone recognises the scenario that occurred with BSE," says Brian Peart from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"It's never possible for a scientist to say impossible. But everything we know up to this time is that it's not a problem," he adds.

Grey area

But critics say that is a carefully worded answer, because 'everything we know' is a very tiny amount indeed. There have been very few studies done on the disease or its ability to move into humans.

Cow infected with BSE
Health concerns over BSE have reached crisis levels in Europe
The Canadian Government has ordered all meat from possibly infected elk to be destroyed. It has also recalled the velvet from elk antlers that is sold as an alternative medicine - particularly in Asia.

The government recalls go back three years - but there were outbreaks on a smaller scale before that, and some critics wonder whether people may have already consumed meat and antlers from infected animals.

The slaughtered elk will be tested by government scientists to see how many actually had chronic wasting disease. However, the results may not be known for weeks or months.

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23 Dec 00 | Europe
Global alert on BSE
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