Deer virus threatens S.C. populations

A viral disease has killed thousands of white-tail deer in the eastern half of the United States within the past three months in what biologists say is the most severe outbreak in decades.

Positive cases of hemorrhagic disease, which stems from groups of viruses transmitted by biting midges -- also known as sand gnats or no-see-ums -- have been confirmed in New Jersey, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Dozens more cases are pending confirmation, including samples from South Carolina.

While the disease cannot be spread to humans or pets, biologists advise against eating deer determined to be sick or potentially affected by the disease.

Within the last three weeks, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has sent three deer carcasses to be tested at the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Ga., said Charles Ruth, a DNR biologist.

"It's really flared up around the Southeast in the last few weeks," Ruth said. "There's no question it's out there."

Hemorrhagic disease attacks cells in blood vessels, leading to internal bleeding and severe fluid build-up in glands.

Outward signs can include mouth ulcers, abrasions or sores on the stomach and legs, loss of appetite and abnormal hoof growth. Sick deer often develop high fevers and become lethargic and emaciated.

More than 100 carcasses have tested positive for the disease at the Wildlife Disease Study, making it certain that several thousand deer are affected, said Dr. David Stallknect, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Georgia.

The S.C. DNR encourages hunters, landowners and others to report sick deer or those that have died of unknown causes to the agency as soon as they're found. Call the wildlife line at (803) 734-3886. Go to www.dnr.sc.gov for more information.

How to report sick deer