People don’t catch deadly Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD); white tailed deer do. The terminal illness is spread through the bite of gnats, also known as midges, aka no-see-ums, aka punkies, aka Culicoides cornutus. The tiny flying insect picks it up from the blood of an infected host and transmits it to the next deer it feeds upon.
And while cases of the disease are a fairly common annual occurrence in the southern United States and in upstate New York, the fatal malady has made its way to Long Island, and the East End.
Currently, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has received reports of seven dead deer with suspected EHD in Southampton between North Sea and Bridgehampton. The DEC has taken samples and is currently awaiting the pathology report from Cornell Wildlife Health Lab to confirm EHD.
As of October 7, the DEC reports some 82 suspected cases in Suffolk County, with just two of the cases confirmed by lab tests so far. Over 500 cases were reported in Ulster County, with Dutchess County home to the second largest number of suspected cases at 319. In all, the DEC has received reports of 1,150 dead deer so far this year.
Although state conservation officials are looking at just seven suspected cases in Southampton, anecdotally, locals are reporting what looks like many more.
Mary Rivas of Billington Horse Stables in Southampton was surprised to find four dead deer on her property last week. They were in unusual places, she said, although one was near a roadside and could have been the victim of a vehicle strike. Still, she said it’s very rare to find more than one dead deer in a week, much less four “for no rhyme or reason.”
In Sagaponack, farmer and Express News Group columnist Marilee Foster reported hearing about an unusual number of dead deer discovered by friends who are hunters and property managers. “I heard from several hunters, they’re seeing a lot of dead deer,” she said. One acquaintance who is an estate manager told her he was hauling out as many as 10 carcasses from some properties.
“It’s very disturbing for sure,” she added, pointing out that the East End has an overpopulation of deer. Combine that with attenuated summer weather and, she said, “it’s a perfect storm.”
Deer gather near water bodies and so do the gnats, Foster explained. They won’t die off until the first frost, and the veteran agriculturist said she doesn’t see that happening for another month or so. “It’s so warm,” she said, “The gnats are everywhere.” They live in tall grasses that have yet to die off.
Coleen Curtin of Springs learned about EHD after she found a dead deer on her property in the Clearwater section of the hamlet. She called the DEC, and found out about the illness, but was unable to get through to report the suspected case. No one returned her call about coming to test the deer, she said, and “I buried it myself.”
State officials are monitoring the outbreak across multiple counties. It began in the lower Hudson Valley in late July.
The viral disease doesn’t spread from deer to deer and humans can’t be infected by either contact with a sick deer or a bite from the carrier gnats. Dead deer aren’t contagious, either, because the virus doesn’t last long on the carcass.
Because EHD symptoms resemble other domestic ruminant diseases, officials say it’s important to report sightings of sick or dead deer suspected of having EHD. The DEC has an online reporting form on its website, dec.ny.gov.
Infected deer begin to show signs two to 10 days after they are infected, and usually die within 36 hours after that. Symptoms include fever, hemorrhage in muscles or organs, and swelling of the head, neck, tongue, and lips. A deer infected with EHD may appear lame or dehydrated.
Often, infected deer will seek out water sources and many die near a water source. There is no treatment or means to prevent EHD.
The dead deer bloat and decompose rapidly and, according to a DEC advisory, a large number of dead or sick deer can be found in a small area.
To confirm a diagnosis, the deer are examined through a necropsy and tissues are tested for viral DNA consistent with EHD.
Endemic in southern states, EHD is becoming more common in the north. In some states, large outbreaks have infected thousands of deer. Still, the DEC notes that while an outbreak may kill a number of deer in the local population, “they generally do not have significant long-term impacts on the regional deer population,” the advisory informs.
According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Diagnostic Center, hemorrhagic disease is a general term for illnesses caused by two related virus — the EHD virus and the bluetongue virus (BT).
In addition to white-tailed deer, EHD can also affect mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Testing to confirm a diagnosis is essential because some of the EHD symptoms, like lesions on the mouth and feet can look like symptoms of the livestock disease called foot and mouth disease.
Bluetongue outbreaks in domestic ruminants are becoming more common, according to the Cornell fact sheet. Similar to EHD, it more typically affects sheep, cattle, and goats. It can potentially infect domestic dogs, according to Cornell.
The first confirmed cases of EHD in New York State were logged in 2007 in Albany and Niagara counties. An August 2011 outbreak killed around 100 deer in Rockland County. Hurricane Irene ended the episode.