New CWD research clouds safety issue

By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg — Scientists have said for years that sportsmen
shouldn’t quit hunting just because chronic wasting disease is
present in some deer and elk herds.

They’re still saying that, even though new research indicates
that the disease has been found in muscle meat – the very venison
hunters might eat – from those animals.

That finding represents a significant change. Until now, the
prions that cause the disease were thought to have been confined to
the brains, spinal cords and lymph node tissues of sick cervids
like deer and elk.

In January, however, in an article published in the most recent
edition of the journal Science, researchers from Colorado and
Kentucky, said they have found “significant” amounts of prions in
the hamstring muscles of deer that had CWD.

“It shows us for the first time that muscle meat is also risk
material,” said Glenn Telling, an associate professor of
microbiology and immunology at the University of Kentucky and one
of the study’s co-authors. “It raises the possibility that people
consuming or handling these animals could be exposed to the
disease.”

Researchers were able to take prions from the muscles of
CWD-positive deer and inject them into the brains of
genetically-altered laboratory mice. Those mice did then contract
wasting disease, though over a longer-than-normal period of
time.

Normal mice that were injected with the same material did not
get sick, however. That means there’s still no evidence chronic
wasting disease can jump the species barrier from cervids to humans
under normal circumstances, said Walt Cotrell, veterinarian for the
Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The information revealed in this latest study is good to have,
as it represents “another piece of the puzzle,” he said. But it
“does not represent a huge alarm at this point” and should not
cause anyone to stop hunting or eating venison.

“It’s the kind of thing, like avian influenza, that is getting a
lot of press, but the scope of it is such that preparation is in
order, but not panic,” Cotrell said.

Mike Miller, a veterinarian with the Colorado Division of
Wildlife and another co-author of the study, apparently agrees.
Miller has been in the field doing research and could not be
reached for comment.

He told the Denver Post, however, that there’s still no evidence
that a person has caught a brain disease by eating a sick deer.
Hunters who take normal precautions should continue to be fine.

“We’ve been saying for 10, 11 years now, ‘Don’t consume deer or
elk that appear to be sick,’” Miller told the Denver Post. “If
anything, this confirms that our standing recommendations are
appropriate.”

Chronic wasting disease has never been found in Pennsylvania,
and this latest research shouldn’t impact hunters who travel to
states that do have the disease. The Pennsylvania Department of
Agriculture and Game Commission in October banned the importation
of certain deer and elk carcass parts from states with CWD in their
free-ranging herds.

There are no plans to expand that ban to include muscle meat as
a result of this study, Cotrell said.

The study could have an effect on how wildlife agencies check
for sick deer in the long term, though. Until now, the only way to
tell if a deer or elk had CWD was to kill it and collect tissue
samples. Now, they may be able to monitor chronic wasting disease
by taking muscle samples from wild animals, Telling said.

In the meantime, researchers must continue to study the disease,
he said. It’s true, for example, that people who have eaten
mad-cow-infected beef have died from a related brain disease known
as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob, so this latest research “raises the
stakes” for those who hunt or otherwise deal with deer and elk. But
there’s so much scientists don’t yet know about CWD.

“The behavior of prions if and when they cross the species
barrier is completely unpredictable. That’s the problem, there are
just so many unknowns in this area.”

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