By STEVE JONES
Mad Cow disease was discovered in 1986. Experts said it couldn’t affect humans, claiming an “interspecies barrier” blocks such prion diseases from jumping from one species to another.
Nine years later, it started killing people.
Experts had to eat their words, while hundreds died and the global beef market was rocked.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), like Mad Cow, is a prion disease. They are very different from bacterial or viral diseases. So far it has not jumped to any other species, and it might never. But the experts are making no promises.
Instead, they say things like:
• “CWD of deer and elk is a widespread health concern because its potential for cross-species transmission is undetermined.”
• “There is accruing evidence for the trans-species transmission of prions, with potentially grave consequences for animals and humans.”
• “If CWD has the ability to (infect other species), this will impact not only wildlife, but also domestic species, which can lead to serious consequences for human health.”
• “Years of continued follow-up are required to be able to say what the risk, if any, of CWD is to humans.”
• “Given uncertainties about the incubation period, exposure and clinical presentation, the possibility that the CWD agent might cause human disease cannot be eliminated.”
Thus, no study says the risk is zero.
Mad Cow cleared that interspecies barrier 229 times we know of, each representing a lingering and gruesome death.
So take claims about the strength of that barrier with a grain of salt.
With Mad Cow, the damage was limited because it is not contagious. It is transmitted by eating infected meat, not by contact.
Here’s the scary part: CWD is different. It’s contagious by contact.
Let that sink in.
Sure, the risk that CWD will jump species seems low. It may never happen.
We just don’t know.
But there are some things we do know. Right now:
• Infected deer spread persistent infectious CWD prions on Missouri soil.
• Some Missouri cattle graze CWD-contaminated pastures.
• Some Missouri families eat CWD-infected venison.
• Some Missouri farmers likely harvest plants containing CWD prions.
All of this while the canned hunt industry resists regulations to fight CWD, assisted by enthusiastic accomplices in the Legislature and the courts.
CWD is relentless.
Once established, it tends to grow geographically and in prevalence. Known management tools have shown some success at limiting and slowing growth, but only if applied while prevalence is low. As prevalence and range increase, management becomes less effective and more expensive.
Who pays the price? Both in dollars and health risk? You. And me. Taxpayers. Citizens. Hunters and non-hunters alike.
Infection rates inside some fences have hit 80 percent. In the wild, it’s as high as 57 percent so far. Arkansas discovered a major outbreak last year that is already 23 percent. At those levels, management options are bleak.
Quick action by the Missouri Department of Conservation has held the rate very low in Missouri. The narrow window of opportunity to control CWD here is still open.
But important regulations are in legal limbo as we wait for an industry lawsuit to drag its way through the courts.
Missouri’s first CWD positive came in 2010 inside a Linn County canned-hunt fence. In 2011, more CWD was found in a nearby Macon County canned hunting ranch. In 2012, several wild deer tested positive within two miles of the Macon County pen. It has spread from there.
The source of a CWD outbreak can never be proven. Certainly, not all of them come from the canned hunting industry. But outbreaks starting in or near a confined cervid operation are a recurring theme. They don’t make coincidences that big.
The fences themselves are often poorly maintained junk. In 2013, the MDC estimated 150 deer had escaped Missouri pens in the two or three preceding years, then 120 more from January, 2014 through April, 2016. About a third are never recovered, exposing the wild herd to whatever diseases and unnatural genetics they carry.
CWD is spreading farther into Missouri. It has been found in the wild in four Missouri counties. The CWD zone around them, designed for management to control the disease, is up to 29 counties and growing – one quarter of the Missouri landscape so far.
Remember, with Mad Cow disease, each death required clearing the interspecies barrier. But it wasn’t contagious, so every incident was isolated. No infected husbands passed it to their wives. No mothers passed it to their children. The only way to get it was to eat infected meat.
Remember, CWD IS contagious. If it clears that barrier just one time and remains contagious in the new host species, the result could be horrific. If it jumped to people, the potential consequences are too terrible to contemplate.
Some would call that scare tactics, but these facts are not in dispute:
• CWD is 100 percent fatal. Infected deer die in about 18 months if nothing else kills them first.
• Deer catch CWD through contact with infected deer or contaminated soil.
• Infected deer shed persistent infectious prions back into the soil.
• No deer is immune to CWD.
• CWD is the only prion disease known to spread among any wild species anywhere in the world – ever.
Prion diseases are not something deer (or humans, or cattle) evolved to handle. Prions sidestep the immune system. You get it, you die. Attempts to create a vaccine have failed.
Courts and legislatures get away with being relaxed about CWD. It’s off their political radar. The “contagious” part does not scare them much.
Well, it sure scares me.
Policy makers interfering with CWD regulations force the public into an involuntary game of Russian Roulette. They treat this like a “property rights” issue – as if the canned hunting industry has a right to risk the destruction of a wildlife species, to contaminate the soil and to risk public health.
Until the public wakes up to this threat, nothing will change.
Except the load of CWD prions in Missouri soil, which increases as the clock goes “tick tick tick.”
Or is that the “click click click” of Russian Roulette?
Unabridged version available online at NoMoCWD.org/health with footnotes and links backing up the facts presented.