A new report from the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) has revealed that Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), an illness that affects deer and other hoofed mammals, could have the potential to infect humans.
The report, which detailed recent findings from a study on CWD transmission in Alberta and Saskatchewan, found that macaque monkeys can contract the disease, making the likelihood of human transmission much higher than previously thought. Macaques share an estimated 93 per cent of their DNA with humans and are frequently used in medical studies to examine human impact.
“It’s not unlikely that it will affect humans at some point,” said Ted Bilyea, chief strategy officer at CAPI in an interview Monday.
CWD is a prion disease found in deer, elk and caribou, in both wild and farmed populations in Canada, the U.S., and more recently in South Korea and Scandinavia. It is highly contagious between hoofed animals, spreading through saliva, animal carcasses, feces, and even soil and plants located in areas where infected animals have died. CWD can survive in a given area for up to ten years and experimental data has shown possible transmission to cats, pigs, sheep, cows and rodents.
Testing trials involved feeding macaques food infected with CWD and were conducted by the Alberta Prion Research Institute, Genome Alberta, Genome Canada, PrionNet and SSHRC in collaboration with the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and researchers from Germany. The macaques experienced inflammation along the nerves in the spinal cord and two died.
This discovery indicates particular risk for hunters and Indigenous communities, who are the primary consumers of elk and caribou meat.
According to Ellen Goddard, a researcher of prion diseases, one solution is to improve CWD testing. She explained that although Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Yukon impose mandatory testing on deer farms, other provinces use a spotty sample-testing method which means a portion of livestock are guaranteed to go unexamined.
Goddard is advocating for the national government to put forward a framework that would make every province subject to the same guidelines.
“Wildlife is a provincial mandate, but it’s an international disease that can cross over from the American border as well … The problem is with so many people responsible, it’s difficult to get it up to the top for any one agency to really take it and run with it,” she said.
CWD is a silent killer, incubating in the gut before spreading to the brain. Bilyea estimated it could decades for an infected person to develop symptoms. He added that other prion diseases such as Kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) often present as dementia, which could potentially lead to CWD cases going unnoticed.
CAPI recommends that hunters test their meat before sale or personal consumption, which not only keeps people safe, but also contributes to research by revealing CWD hotspots.
Testing requires hunters to submit the heads of the animal they kill, but Goddard wants the process improved.
In Saskatchewan, according to the province’s website, fresh or frozen heads can be dropped off at select Ministry of Environment field offices, parks offices or self-service drop-off locations, with results available in roughly six weeks.
In Alberta, the provincial government supplies freezers on known hunting grounds to preserve the heads, but they’re often overcrowded and expensive to build.
“We’re seeing a reduction in the number of freezer locations in the province at the moment,” Goddard said, adding the Alberta government has reduced funding for these spaces.
* This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that cattle could contract CWD. Cows have not been shown to have CWD yet, although they do get a similar prion disease such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Although studies were conducted showing that cattle could potentially contract CWD, there have not been any cases of natural infection.
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