2 Alberta flocks quarantined after fatal disease related to mad cow found in a sheep

Two sheep flocks in central Alberta have been quarantined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for scrapie, a fatal disease that affects the central nervous system of both sheep and goats and is related to mad cow disease.

The CFIA said in mid-June it confirmed a sheep had scrapie, and implemented disease-control measures at that farm. 

It found the diseased sheep had lived on multiple premises, which resulted in a flock at a second farm being quarantined as well.

All sheep that came in contact with that sheep will be given a genetic blood test, CFIA said, and those that don't have a genetic trait that would make them resistant to the disease will be humanely killed. 

It's crippling. It will destroy your company. - Jeanette Hall, goat producer

There's no known link between scrapie and human health, according to Health Canada. CFIA said one of the options for humanely killing the animals is slaughtering them for meat. 

After the infected or susceptible animals are killed, the quarantined farms will need to be cleaned and disinfected. 

"It's a progressive disease, usually takes a while before the animal will show signs," said University of Calgary veterinary medicine professor Michel Levy. "The signs are very different. Animals can become very nervous, they can scratch themselves a lot, and then eventually, you know, over time, they will die."

The disease can take up to eight years to develop. Once an animal appears ill, it will die within months. 

There's no treatment or vaccine.

Scrapie can be spread from a mother to her offspring and infectious prions — misfolded proteins, primarily in the brain, that replicate by causing other proteins to become distorted — have been found in milk, saliva, feces and urine of infected animals.

Entire herds could be destroyed

Levy said there's an effort to eradicate the disease in Canada.

That could mean dozens of animals being killed if they came in contact with the infected sheep, to prevent the disease's spread.

"It may be that sometimes the herd or the stock may be affected and quarantined and destroyed. So financially it's a big problem," he said. 

Levy said the best way to prevent the disease is to ensure animals are tested or quarantined before being introduced to a flock.

That's something that's top of mind for goat producer Jeanette Hall, who moves her herd to different fields to cut grass for clients. She said she's tightened her own bio-security practices.

"The only way to prevent catastrophe here is to adopt the best management strategies and be proactive and get ahead of it. Because once it's taken off there's nothing we can really do about it," Hall said. "It's crippling. It will destroy your company."

Hallie Cotnam/CBC

Hall said she'd like to see more reliable traceability programs implemented in the country, and urged municipalities to create their own policies. 

"The reason we want traceability is so that we can track our food from farm gate to your plate," she said. 

"Animals are moving throughout our province all the time … and if we aren't taking the appropriate steps in doing that safely we're going to put a lot of people at risk."

Hall also said she's unhappy she hasn't received many details or updates on the situation from the CFIA — a concern echoed by the Alberta Lamb Producers.

Terry Reith/CBC

"Some producers want to know. This has the potential to affect our livelihood. Those questions are there, and because we have no answers, it is incredibly frustrating for us as an organization and for producers," said director and chair Darlene Stein.

"We have no idea who was affected. It would be nice to be able to reach out to them and offer support. Sometimes just having the support of an organization behind you as you go through the process, you feel supported," Stein said.

CBC News has reached out to CFIA for further comment, and for details on how many animals have been euthanized.

Scrapie was first detected in Canada in 1938 and was made a reportable disease with a control program in place in 1945.