Could Humans Get Chronic Wasting Disease?

  • A deer wasting away from Chronic Wasting Disease. (Photo courtesy of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources.)

A disease that infects deer and elk has been alarming wildlife officials and hunters for years. But now it seems the disease could be more dangerous than previously thought. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:

Transcript

A disease that infects deer and elk has been alarming wildlife officials
and hunters for years, but now it seems the disease could be more
dangerous than previously thought. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Christina Shockley reports:


Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, affects the brain tissue of deer and
elk. Sponge-like holes form in the brains of sick animals. The deer
begin to waste away, become weak, and then die.


Since CWD was discovered in Colorado nearly forty years ago, wild deer
in nine other states have tested positive for the disease. Little is known
about CWD – including how to stop it.


What scientists do know is that the infectious proteins-called prions –
thought to cause CWD are found in the brain and spinal cord areas of
infected animals, but officials still don’t have the answer to the big
question.


Judd Aiken is a professor of Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences at
the University of Wisconsin.


“The ultimate question is whether venison from infected animals, CWD infected
deer, poses a risk to humans. Clearly the first question that needed to be
asked and addressed was whether there was infectivity in muscle.”


Recent findings say there is.


Researchers at the University of Kentucky injected muscle from an
infected deer into the brains of genetically altered mice. The mice
displayed signs of CWD. This is the first time the infectious proteins
blamed for CWD have been found in deer meat.


The finding raises questions about whether eating venison is safe.
Researchers including Aiken say the study is important, but has limits.
For example, he says it doesn’t replicate what would happen in real life.
Plus, he says it’s probably unlikely humans can even get CWD. He says
studies suggest it’s difficult for the disease to jump to other species. Still,
he urges caution. Hunters should get the meat tested before they eat deer
from an area where CWD has been found.


“I, in no way, can advocate the consumption of infected deer, and indeed,
I would suggest due to the limitations of the CW tests, I don’t advocate
the consumption of deer obtained from a CWD endemic area.”


Even if the test comes back negative, Aiken says a negative result isn’t
always accurate, and infected animals in the beginning stages of the
disease can look and act normal.


(Sound of sporting goods store)


John White is a deer hunter from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He’s in the
hunting section of a nearby sporting goods store. White isn’t too
concerned about Chronic Wasting Disease.


“Not a whole lot of people are worried about it. I mean, when it first
came out, some people were a little leery about it and didn’t want to hunt
that year, but they kinda got over it. I’m not really worried about it being
in the meat at all, because by the time the test comes back I’ll probably
have the deer eaten already and then it’s already too late.”


State wildlife officials say… that’s not a good idea. They recommend that
if you hunt deer in areas where the disease has been found, get the deer
tested before eating it. That message hasn’t changed… since learning the
prions could be in the meat. Some argue… it should change.


John Stauber is with a government watchdog group in Wisconsin, and
is co-author of “Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?”
He says officials are keeping quiet about the risk of CWD so they don’t
lose revenue from hunting licenses.


A large portion of state conservation agency budgets are dependent on
fees from hunting licenses. He says all deer that die should be tested for
the disease. Stauber also says CWD is a major human health concern.


“The biggest risk might not be the people who would die from
eating venison, but rather, the people who would die from the
contamination of the blood supply. This is a problem that would unfold
not in days or months or years, but even over decades.”


Stauber says it’s just a matter of time before Chronic Wasting Disease
spreads to people… he says some might even have the disease already,
and not know it.


But researchers like Judd Aiken from the University of Wisconsin say
people shouldn’t over-react.


“People should be concerned, but I don’t want people to panic, either. If
you think you may have consumed venison from infected animals, I don’t
think it’s likely that you’ll ever develop a human prion disease.”


But, Aiken says there’s too much we don’t know about the disease, and
since studies can take years to complete, we might be in the dark for a
while longer.


For the GLRC, I’m Christina Shockley.

Related Links

A Fight Over Dam Decommissioning

More small river dams are being torn down around the U-S. In
fact, a recent report by conservation groups says several states in the
upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no longer
produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down thestructures
helps water quality. But some people who live near the dams feel like
they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck
Quirmbach prepared this report:

Transcript

More small river dams are being torn down around the U.S. In fact, a recent report by conservation

groups says several states in the upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no

longer produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down the structures helps water quality.

But some people who live near the dams feel like they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes

Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach prepared this report:


(sound of rushing water)


“This is an excellent example of the state of many of the dams across Wisconsin and the fact they

are rapidly deteriorating.”


Stephanie Lindloff is standing on top of the Franklin Dam in Sheboygan Country. The rural area’s

about fifty miles north of Milwaukee. The Franklin Dam is about two stories high and half a

football field long. It was built in the 1850’s, to power a grist mill. But the mill is long gone.

And now, on its way to lake Michigan, the Sheboygan river pours through a small hole. That’s

slowly draining the impoundment, or lake behind the dam. Stephanie Lindloff says the hole is a

sign of advanced aging.


“This dam in particular, not unlike a lot of dams around the state, had a gate that was boarded up

and the wooden boards were what was holding the water back in the end of June, two lowermost

boards cracked and water started seeping out of impoundment… wasn’t an emergency situation, but

nonetheless there was a break in the dam.”


Lindloff is with the environmental group, The River Alliance of Wisconsin. She estimates it would

cost at least 350,000 dollars to fix the Franklin Dam. It might take only one-fourth of that

amount to tear it down. Besides saving money, Lindloff says removing the Franklin Dam would also

make the Sheboygan River healthier.


“Scientists agree dams devastate river systems. They continue to block natural functioning of

rivers, impact water quality, they block fish migration and spawning grounds.”


Lindloff says ten miles of the Sheboygan River and river shoreline could be improved if the

Franklin Dam comes out. But some people who live along the small lake are sounding off about the

proposed teardown.


“I mean the dam’s solid. It’s built solid.”


Kris Wilkins believes the Franklin Dam merely needs some repairs. She loves the small farm she has

along the lake, and has even taken to raising geese.


(sound of geese)


Wilkins predicts that removing the dam would drastically cut the size of the lake and harm the

value of her property.


“It’s gorgeous out here, we have all kinds of wildlife: green herring, blue herring, our geese,

fox, woodchucks all around, it’s just nature all the way.”


Wilkins and several of her neighbors are trying to create a lake district. That’s where local

people could assess themselves a tax to raise some of the money to fix the dam. The group’s

leader, Don Last, says he’s prepared to hike his own taxes.


“It’s really the only alternative we have to find the funds and possibly get matching money to

restore and maintain.”


But some wonder if the small number of folks in this rural township can raise enough cash. They

won’t get any help from the dam’s owner, which is the Franklin volunteer fire department. The

department no longer gets its firefighting water from the lake, and fire officials say they have

no money for dam repairs. A state bailout is unlikely too.


If the Franklin Dam comes down, it would join about fifty other Wisconsin dams that have been

removed in the last twenty years. Ohio and Pennsylvania have also taken out a sizeable number of

the old structures. Steve Born is a regional planner at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

He’s written nationally about dam removals. Born says the entire Great Lakes region can benefit,

as long as officials keep a check on contaminated sediments that may have built up behind the

dams.


“There has to be provisions for either draining the impoundment… dredging these… moving them

to safe landfill sites… neutralizing them in some way. But they can’t be allowed to just

disperse throughout the system.”


Born is an advisor to trout unlimited, which is another of the groups pushing for dam removals. If

state and local governments go about removing dams carefully, Born and others will welcome the

site of more free-flowing streams.


(sound of stream)


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.