By Dr. Mercola
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose, leading to weight loss (wasting), stumbling and other abnormal behaviors, loss of bodily functions and eventually death. CWD belongs to the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) disease family, which also includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human version of mad cow disease.
CWD is widespread throughout North America and has been detected in at least 23 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Nationwide, the overall occurrence of CWD in free-ranging deer and elk is relatively low.” In areas where the disease is established, infections rates may rise to 1 in 10 or, in localized cases, 1 in 4, but a major concern is rising among captive deer, where infection rates can reach 79 percent, or nearly 4 in 5.1
Deer farms are facing rising criticism for playing a potential role in the spread of CWD, while government agencies continue to subsidize such farms. While no cases of CWD have been detected in humans, there’s concern that it could one day jump to humans, leading to devastating neurological infections.
Taxpayers Subsidize Diseased Deer Farms
CWD has been detected in 53 of 72 counties in Wisconsin, a state that’s home to 372 deer farms, 76 of which allow hunting, where hunters may pay more than $10,000 to kill a buck. Since 2001, 21 deer farms in the state have tested positive for CWD, and 12 have been depopulated as a result.2 Curiously, some CWD-positive facilities are allowed to continue operating. In some cases, deer have actually been transferred from a deer farm in one county to a facility in another county, then later tested positive for CWD.
Case in point, the transferring of captive CWD-positive deer could easily be contributing to the spread of the disease within the state. What’s more, when a deer farm tests positive for CWD and is depopulated, the business owner receives a subsidy or bailout from the government.
It may seem strange that a business such as a captive deer farm, which promotes the spread of CWD by raising animals in close quarters, would receive government subsidies. It occurs because captive deer are considered livestock and as a result are covered under the Condemnation of Diseased Animals statute, which was enacted in 1977. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:3
“(DATCP) [Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection] may condemn animals that are affected with or exposed to a contagious or infectious disease if the department determines that it is necessary to do so to prevent or control the spread of the disease. Condemned animals shall be slaughtered or destroyed as directed by the department … the department shall pay indemnities on livestock condemned and slaughtered or destroyed.”
While deer farm owners typically would receive up to $1,500 per animal slaughtered, if the carcass is disposed of at DATCP’s direction, they may receive more. According to the Journal Sentinel, “In such a case, ‘the department shall increase the amount of the indemnity by the costs of the destruction of the animal and of the disposal, transportation and any necessary storage of the animal’s carcass.’”4
The money to bail out the diseased farms comes either from tax revenues paid by Wisconsin residents or, if there’s not enough available, from federal funds also generated by taxpayers.
According to records accessed by the Journal Sentinel, a Wisconsin deer farmer received nearly $300,000 for euthanizing 228 deer in 2015, while no data on payments was available for the two deer farms depopulated so far in 2018. In May 2018, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced new rules for deer farmers operating in counties affected by CWD, effective via an emergency order by August 2018.
Both captive deer breeding and hunting facilities will be required to install additional barriers around their facilities, including a second 8-foot-tall fence, an electric fence or a different “impermeable physical barrier.” Hunters will also be required to cut hunted deer into quarters and leave the spinal cord, where the disease may concentrate, behind.
Deer farmers in the state oppose the new measures, with some saying the requirements will put them out of business, but DATCP intends to move forward with the regulations in an attempt to slow CWD spread.5
Minnesota Failed to Enforce CWD Prevention Efforts on Captive Deer Farms
Minnesota is another state with a flourishing deer farming industry. The state is home to nearly 400 captive herds of deer, elk and related species. Eight of these farms have tested positive for CWD since 2002, and the disease has also been found in wild deer from two counties.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health is responsible for oversight of deer and elk farms, but a report from the state legislative auditor’s office revealed the Board has failed in response to CWD. Among the infractions were failures to maintain accurate inventory of animals, analyze testing of animals for CWD and penalize farmers who did not properly test animals. MPR News quoted deputy legislative auditor Judy Randall, who spoke to the Legislative Audit Commission:6
“For example, we found that the board has not insured that deer and elk producers submit tissue samples as required for CWD testing of all deceased animals and in fact we found that in recent years about one-third of producers did not submit required tissue samples for all diseased animals. This is concerning because these samples are critical for identifying and then subsequently controlling CWD in our state.”
A veterinarian with the state actually said that the Board’s compliance officers “probably gave the producers the benefit of the doubt,” noting that moving forward they would need to enforce the regulations regarding testing of samples. The report further highlighted a “strained relationship” between the Board and the Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for managing CWD in wild deer populations, such that the two agencies may not have been adequately communicating and sharing data regarding the disease.
Can CWD Be Transmitted to Humans?
The implications of CWD spreading in wild and captive deer and elk populations are devastating, but there’s another layer of concern in that it’s possible the disease could spread to humans. No cases have been documented to date, but studies suggest this highly contagious disease may pose a risk to monkeys and other animals that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or that come in contact with their brain or bodily fluids.
“These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people,” according to the CDC, which pointed out that the World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends products that could be contaminated with CWD or any related disease should be kept out of the human food chain.7 Prions, which are an infectious type of protein, are thought to be responsible for the brain destruction that occurs in CWD, mad cow disease and related diseases.
Prions may be spread via contaminated feces, saliva, blood or urine, as well as via contact with contaminated soil, food or water. Not only can CWD spread quickly among a population but it’s thought that the proteins remain in the environment for a long time, posing a continued infection risk to animals in the area. In a study on macaques, monkeys that share genetic similarities with humans, the animals developed CWD after eating CWD-infected meat or brain tissue.8
Some of the meat came from deer that had CWD but showed no symptoms of the disease, yet was still able to spread the infection to monkeys. Studies are currently underway to determine if people in contact with CWD-infected animals or meat are at increased risk of prion diseases, but results won’t be available for some time. “Because of the long time it takes before any symptoms of disease appear, scientists expect the study to take many years before they will determine what the risk, if any, of CWD is to people,” the CDC reported.9
Alzheimer’s Disease Could Be Linked to a Prion-Like Protein
The idea that CWD could pose a threat to humans does not seem far-fetched when you consider TDP-43, another infectious protein that behaves much like prions. According to research published in 2011, TDP-43 pathology is detected in 25 percent to 50 percent of Alzheimer’s patients, particularly in those with hippocampal sclerosis, characterized by selective loss of neurons in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory loss.10
Research presented at the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) also revealed Alzheimer’s patients with TDP-43 were 10 times more likely to have been cognitively impaired at death than those without.11 There is reason to believe, according to a review in Medical Hypotheses, that Alzheimer’s may develop similarly to mad cow disease and other spongiform encephalopathies.
“In fact, Creutzfeldt-Jakob and Alzheimer’s often coexist and at this point are thought to differ merely by time-dependent physical changes,” the researcher stated. “A recent study links up to 13 percent of all ‘Alzheimer’s’ victims as really having Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease … All of this brings up the unthinkable: that Alzheimer’s, Cruetzfeldt-Jackob and mad cow disease might just be caused by eating the meat or dairy in consumer products or feed.”12
The common denominator between mad cow disease and CWD is forcing natural herbivores to eat animal parts and byproducts, such as blood and bone meal. This is common practice in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The evidence also suggests humans may be infected with TDP-43 via contaminated meats. The most infectious parts of a cow carrying these prions are the brain and spinal cord, which may be found in hot dogs, bologna and products containing either gelatin or ground meat.13
An intriguing suggestion is that Alzheimer’s is a slower moving version of mad cow disease, acquired by eating contaminated CAFO meats. Another concern is antler velvet from elk, which is sometimes taken in supplement form. Prions have been detected in elk antler velvet, which suggests it plays a role in disease transmission among elk and “humans who consume antler velvet as a nutritional supplement are at risk for exposure to prions.”14
Avoid Consuming Meat From CWD-Positive Animals
If you’re a hunter or consume meat from elk or deer, you should ensure the meat is tested for CWD before it’s consumed. While some states require testing of deer from high-CWD areas, others do not, and some areas offer free testing while in others it must be done at the hunter’s expense. In Wisconsin, for example, the DNR offers free CWD testing to hunters in the state, but they must drop off the deer head for sampling.
In one particularly CWD-prone area, an estimated 65,000 deer were killed but not tested, suggesting many hunters aren’t taking the risk seriously.15 If you’ve obtained a deer from a captive farm, which isn’t recommended, it’s especially important to have the animal tested, as the farms are high-risk zones for CWD.
It’s important to understand that you cannot judge whether an animal has CWD by symptoms alone. It can be years before symptoms develop, and a healthy-looking animal may still be infected and capable of transmitting the disease.
Such is the concern with its transmission to humans; if the disease has already mutated into a form that could infect humans, symptoms may not be seen for years or decades, and they may appear similar to other prion diseases like vCJD, making the diseases virtually indistinguishable.
Mark Zabel, associate director of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, told the Journal Sentinel that not only could CWD in deer eventually mutate into a form that could infect people, but, “if that happened, the people most susceptible would be those who ate the most infected deer meat.”16
In addition, the CDC recommends hunters use caution when handling a deer in the field, including wearing latex or rubber gloves when handling the meat and minimizing contact with the organs, especially the brain and spinal cord. And even they recommend you, “Strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for CWD before you eat the meat … If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.”17
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