Even the publication location of an important new research paper on chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a public service.
It’s not behind the paywall of a medical journal charging $25 or more for one-time use. Instead, the Minnesota-led group of authors published its article on the alarming deer disease where the public can read it for free.
It’s easily found online in MBio, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the American Society for Microbiology. Just type the paper’s title into a search engine to find it: “Chronic Wasting Disease in Cervids: Implications for Prion Transmission to Humans and Other Animal Species.”
Those who rely on venison to feed their families — and that’s a lot of people in Minnesota and surrounding states — ought to read this short, understandable briefing from infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm and fellow authors. Osterholm is a former state epidemiologist who now heads an infectious-disease research and policy center at the University of Minnesota.
There’s not a moment to lose. The statewide bowhunting season for deer opens Sept. 14, with the Nov. 9 firearms opener only a few months away.
The paper puts a timely spotlight on human risk, rounding up the latest scientific research. It’s a sobering read. While transmission of CWD from infected deer to humans hasn’t been documented, complacency is foolhardy. Little is known about the mysterious, nearly-impossible-to-kill proteins called “prions” that cause it.
“Mad cow disease,” another disease caused by prions, is an example of how this pathogen can cross the species barrier to humans. But it can take years to show up, which is why the paper’s authors drive home this point: The absence of documented CWD cases in humans is not reassuring.
The rapid spread of animals infected with CWD, a group that includes elk, moose, reindeer and sika deer, offers further reason for alarm. “In 2000, CWD was documented in five U.S. states and one Canadian province … in 2018, it was found in 26 states and three provinces,” the authors note.
In addition, it’s found in South Korea and across Scandinavian countries. The takeaway: Human exposure is growing and the number of infected animals eaten may increase 20% a year.
There are other chilling new details in the paper. Research suggests that new CWD strains may be evolving, with changes potentially increasing the ability of the proteins to spread faster to other animals and humans.
CWD also can be found in muscle, blood and what are known as “lymphoid organs,” a reality at odds with a common misconception that prions are only found in the brain or central nervous system. The prions found in these other tissues may have even more potential to infect other species.
Minnesota, to its credit, has taken smart action to contain the disease, including requiring testing of deer harvested in the state’s CWD hot spots. Hunters can also voluntarily test their animals, and should be more inclined to do so after reading the paper.
But a coordinated federal effort and funding is also needed. Urgency is lacking. Minnesota’s deer hunters not only need to arm themselves with the latest health information for the upcoming hunt, they need to urge the state’s congressional delegation to advocate more energetically for action.