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First case in Finland: Elk dies due to chronic wasting disease

The death of an elk in eastern Finland has been blamed on chronic wasting disease, which has never been seen in the country before.

Inarin Angelissa hirvet ovat tavallinen näky pihassa olevassa porojen ruokinta-aitauksessa.
Image: Kirsti-Helena Länsman / Yle

The Finnish Food Safety Agency (Evira) says that analysis of the carcass of a moose or European elk (Alces alces) found in Kuhmo, eastern Finland, shows that it died of chronic wasting disease (CWD). The illness has so far only been found in North America and, since 2016, in neighbouring Norway.

The remains of the 15-year-old elk were found in the Kainuu region, close to the Russian border.

Evira’s own test results have been confirmed by an EU reference lab. CWD, which is only known to strike members of the deer family (Cervidae) is believed to always be fatal.

CWD is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy like BSE (‘mad cow disease’), but no cases of transmission to humans have been confirmed. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns hunters in areas where the illness has been found not to consume parts of deer and elk that may harbour the disease, including the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes.

“No danger” from eating venison

Evira says there is no danger from eating meat from members of the deer family in Finland, and it plans no restrictions on the sale or export of such products. As a precaution it is suspending exports of live deer, including reindeer. Such exports are minimal, although semi- domesticated reindeer do roam freely over the borders between northern Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Up until now, the only cases of CWD found in Europe have been in Norway since 2016. At the beginning of this year, Finland and five other EU countries launched stepped-up monitoring of possible cases of the illness.

The form of the disease identified in Kuhmo is the same as in Norway, which is found incidentally in individual animals of the deer family, rather than the transmissible form that is common in Canada and the US.

Reindeer herders concerned

Some 2500 samples have been checked for the disease in Finland since 2003, but all have turned up negative.

Evira says that monitoring of the disease will be intensified in the Kuhmo and Kainuu region. Hunters will be provided with guidelines before the next hunting season as needed.

Anne Ollila, Director of the Finnish Reindeer Herders Association, tells Yle that her group is concerned about the impact on its industry, and is closely tracking the situation.

“Research is underway. This matter must be taken seriously, but there’s no point in starting to panic,” she says.

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