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State wildlife officials are alerting the public to a disease outbreak among the Middle Tennessee deer population after receiving reports of diseased carcasses in scattered areas.

The timing and details of many of the reports have led Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency personnel to believe that deaths are being caused by hemorrhagic disease — a fairly common blood-borne illness caused by a sector of flies known broadly as biting midges, sand gnats, sand flies, no-see-ums or punkies.

"Reports are coming in daily as TWRA continues to monitor the situation," agency deer management program leader James Kelly said in a news release. "If hunters or the public find sick or dead deer they are encouraged to report these animals to their local TWRA regional office."

Reports to the agency are more severe than average and indicate mortality in at least 20 counties, mostly in Central Tennessee, with more expected as the season progresses, according to the release.

Largely, hunters and the general population are able to continue normal habits when it comes to handling deer. The disease does not infect humans. People are not at risk by handling the deer, eating venison or being bitten, according to the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine. Hunters have almost certainly eaten deer this season with the disease without knowing it, according to UGA assistant professor Mark Ruder. However, wildlife experts warn people against eating deer that show signs of infection.

"It could have other problems," Ruder said. "That deer may have some other things that you may not know about. We don't recommend eating animals exhibiting evidence of any illness."

Hemorrhagic disease occurs regularly in Tennessee at varying levels of severity. The last known outbreak was in East Tennessee in 2017. The last major statewide outbreak occurred in 2007. The agency uses the reports to monitor the severity of the outbreaks on an annual basis.

Anyone who finds sick or dead deer should report that to their local TWRA office.

Unlike more severe diseases, like chronic wasting disease, hemorrhagic disease is not always fatal and is cyclical. The deer population will experience a hemorrhagic disease infestation some years and die in large numbers but then recover in subsequent years with little sign of the disease.

"Although some of the clinical symptoms are similar, it is important to not confuse [hemorrhagic disease] with [chronic wasting disease]," said University of Tennessee Wildlife Veterinarian Dan Grove in the release. "Unlike [chronic wasting disease], [hemorrhagic disease] is a virus and deer can survive infection and populations will eventually rebound following an outbreak. Incidence of [hemorrhagic disease] tends to cycle up and down as the environmental conditions are right for the biting midge to breed. [Chronic wasting disease], on the other hand, is actually a much greater concern because the causative agent known as prions persist in the environment for decades and in deer populations indefinitely."

Local residents can contact the TWRA Region III office at 931-484-9571.

Contact Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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