Drought Brings Deadly Deer Virus to Chicago for the First Time

Photo of an EHD-infected deer in Poplar Creek, via the Chicago Tribune.

It sounds like something from a horror film. Thousands of diseased white-tailed deer carcasses are cropping up across the Upper Midwest. Typically, the virus responsible only affects deer in the Southeast, but this summer's relentless drought may be responsible for the outbreaks in Indiana, Michigan, and now Northern Illinois, at least 100 confirmed cases in Cook County alone, and still others in nearby Kane County.

The disease is spread by tiny insects called midges, sand flies, or no-see-ums. Female midges are known to suck blood from host animals, thereby spreading a deadly orbivirus called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD). Outbreaks occur in the Southeast almost every summer, but it has never spread this far north to Chicago.

"This is the first time it's ever occurred here," confirms local wildlife expert Chris Anchors of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Some deer deteriorate rapidly, with severe internal bleeding in the face, neck, and lungs, causing death in just 1 to 3 days. Others may suffer through the symptoms for weeks or even months, slowing becoming emaciated and immobile.

Biologists believe that current drought conditions in the Midwest are to blame for such an unprecedented northern outbreak. Low rainfall forces white-tailed deer to drink from a limited number of water sources where midges thrive.

The only good news is that the disease cannot be transmitted to humans, or even livestock, and that Chicagoland's first overnight freeze will kill all of the disease vectors (the insects; infected deer can't transmit EHD to uninfected deer through contact).

If you can stomach it, here is a video of a deer suffering from EHD in Indiana. If you spot a deer displaying this behavior, or a carcass with lesions, please call your local Forest Preserve District.

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    Adam Morgan

    Adam Morgan is an outdoors author at Falcon Guides, an award-winning screenwriter at Fox, a blogger at the Tribune Company, a literary magazine editor, copyeditor, backpacker, and explorer. His book, Best Hikes Near Chicago, was published in 2011. He has written and contributed to Publishers Weekly, Bookslut, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and served as editor-in-chief of The Lincoln Park Times in 2011 and Oyez Review in 2010. His script, "Liberal Arts", won grand prize at the New York Television Festival in 2009, and is currently in development at Fox. He also blogs at MountHelicon.blogspot.com.

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