A deadly deer disease is spreading. Could it strike people, too? – Boston.com

A deadly deer disease is spreading. Could it strike people, too? – Boston.com

Jeannine Fleegle reached into a black garbage bag, pulled out a severed deer head, and placed it on a folding table smeared with blood and fur.

“This is no one’s favorite time of year,” Fleegle said, picking up a scalpel.

It was a chilly morning, and Fleegle, a wildlife biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was with a half-dozen other state scientists in a garage in the small town of Bolivar. Covered in head-to-toe white Tyvek suits, they were surgically extracting hundreds of brain stem samples from deer killed by hunters during the state’s rifle season. The samples would be analyzed for signs of a deadly pathogen.

The formal name of the ailment is chronic wasting disease, or CWD. But its effects on deer, elk and other cervids – weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and certain death – have inspired a creepier colloquial name: Zombie deer disease.

More than half a century after it was first detected, the disease is now spreading rapidly. Last winter, Tennessee became the latest of 24 states to report CWD infections, which have also been found in two Canadian provinces, Norway, Finland and South Korea. Now, as it strikes animals across a widening territory, concern is growing among scientists and public health officials that the disease might leap to humans.

CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, another of which did jump species: Mad cow disease. In humans, mad cow disease is known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and it has killed more than 220 people worldwide since the 1990s. Some experts say that in a nation with an estimated 10 million deer hunters harvesting 6 million deer a year and eating many of them, it may be just a matter of time before chronic wasting makes its way to us.

Both CWD and mad cow are thought to be caused by proteins that malfunction and misfold, called prions. There is no known cure or treatment for prion diseases.

“Last year, we estimate that as many as 15,000 carcasses may have been served to people that were CWD-positive,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “And what people don’t understand with prion-related conditions like this is that time changes the risk.”

There are thought to be eight strains of CWD, and every time one goes through an animal, Osterholm said, there’s a chance it might adapt in a way that allows it to pass into humans.

This threat is adding urgency to Fleegle’s work in Pennsylvania. On the same morning she dug into deer brains, biologists at seven other stations across the state were doing the same. Their mission is to establish and maintain “disease management areas,” where hunting remains permitted but with additional restrictions on carcass handling and processing. The goal is to halt CWD’s spread.

A distinctive odor of wet fur and death loomed as Fleegle sliced a deer’s neck down to the last vertebrae, exposing the brain stem beneath. “You core it like an apple,” she said, swirling the instrument in the cavity to detach nerves holding the stem in place. Next, she plucked a thumb-sized piece of creamy, white tissue and dropped it into a jar of formalin, which preserves the sample for testing.

“This one is a bit older, and it’s started to decompose, but that’s okay,” Fleegle said.

The disease can spread from animal to animal via saliva, blood, urine and feces, where prions build up. Inside the body, the brain, spinal column, and spleen all serve as reservoirs for the infected prions, which makes them good areas for diagnosis.

Fears about CWD’s threat to new species rose last year, when a decade-long study provided the first evidence the disease could develop in primates under certain conditions. Scientists successfully gave CWD to macaque monkeys by injecting it into their brains and by feeding the animals infected brain material from a deer. Some monkeys even developed infections after eating tainted venison.

The finding was alarming because macaque DNA is very similar to our own, said Stefanie Czub, a virologist at the University of Calgary and lead researcher of the study, which is not yet published. But Czub said the results should be interpreted with caution.

“It’s not really like you put it into a macaque and boom, they come down with the disease,” she said.

While a hunter might come in contact with a deer that has one CWD strain, Czub’s team hit the macaques with multiple strains at once to test the limits of what’s possible.

Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken a better-safe-than-sorry approach when advising hunters.

“We urge you to strongly consider having your animal tested if it’s harvested from an area where chronic wasting disease has been found,” said Ryan Maddox, a CDC epidemiologist. If it tests positive, don’t eat it, the CDC says.

That advice might seem like it would go without saying. But Fleegle said she’s heard hunters say they planned to dine on infected deer. “The decision to eat any harvested animal lies with the hunter,” she said. “We are not a food safety agency.”

Pennsylvania and many other states now enforce restrictions on transporting deer killed in areas where CWD is established, and that’s important because deer season amounts to a sort of pilgrimage for many hunters. During the 2016-2017 season, for example, people from 49 other states traveled to Wisconsin to hunt deer, despite nearly every county in the state testing positive for CWD or being adjacent to one that has.

Records show 32,000 deer were killed in such areas. Although it is not known how many were infected or how many carcasses were taken out of Wisconsin, the potential for spread is clear.

The problem with moving diseased carcasses is that CWD prions have a remarkable ability to persist in the environment even after a carcass has been discarded and withered away, said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

In experiments, prions have remained present and infectious two years after a carcass decays. If CWD prions are as hardy as the ones that cause a disease in sheep called scrapie, that timetable might be even longer.

“They’ve done things with scrapie where they actually buried brain material in the soil and dug it up 16 years later, and it still caused disease,” Schuler said.

While harvested deer are one danger, the disease can also be spread by moving farmed deer, either for big-game hunting, breeding or petting zoos. The pathogen even seems to have made the voyage across the Pacific as a stowaway inside captive Canadian reindeer destined for a Santa’s Village in South Korea.

Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said he thinks cervid farming and CWD have been unfairly linked. Deer farms are often the “canary in the coal mine” for identifying new infections, he said, because they test every dead animal, whereas states sample a small proportion of the wild population.

Schafer said he’s more concerned about other wildlife diseases, such as West Nile virus, than CWD.

“As a rule, we don’t eat sick animals,” he said. “But do I test all the deer that I hunt? No. I’m sure many of them have been positive, and I’m just not worried about it.”

Not everyone is so nonchalant. Schuler, the Cornell ecologist, is also a hunter. She said venison is her family’s primary source of red meat, and all of it gets tested at her lab before making it to the dinner table.

Matt Ross, a wildlife biologist and assistant director of conservation for the pro-hunting Quality Deer Management Association, said he follows the CDC guidelines and recommends other hunters do the same. But he acknowledged it can be a tough sell. Where people hunt and get animals processed, or how they handle a carcass in the field, tend to be deeply ingrained, he said.

“Folks don’t like change, that’s just human nature,” Ross said. “And traditions are a big part of hunting.”

Ross said his association educates hunters about CWD and has pledged to invest $1 million toward combating it over the next five years. It makes sense for human health, he said, and for hunting’s future.

“Hunters should care. They should care deeply,” said Ross. “Because it’s going to impact our ability to see deer and hunt deer.”

A week before the brain dissections in Bolivar, Fleegle visited Kip’s Deer Processing in Carnegie to pick up deer heads for testing. Hunters bring owner Kip Padgelek deer from all over so that his shop can turn them into steaks, ground meat and jerky. The game commission has an agreement with Padgelek and other processors that allows biologists to collect data such as age, sex and location from heads that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.

Padgelek had provided a work station for Fleegle out back, not only because she needed room to process several barrels filled to the brim with severed heads. Many hunters are wary of the game commission and might keep driving if they spotted one of the state’s trucks out front, she said.

Padgelek estimated that he had lost about 200 customers from Ohio and West Virginia in the 2018 season because of CWD restrictions. But while he said he’s by no means a supporter of every decision the game commission makes, he recognizes why the rules are there.

“I’ve seen [CWD] wipe out processors,” said Padgelek, referring to businesses that have been forced to change or close due to the spread of the disease in states farther west. “I know things have to change if we want to keep hunting.”


  1. I just want to say I am just very new to weblog and definitely enjoyed you’re web site. Almost certainly I’m want to bookmark your blog . You amazingly have outstanding articles and reviews. Kudos for sharing your web page.

  2. I would like to voice my passion for your kindness for men who actually need assistance with this important matter. Your very own commitment to getting the solution up and down has been certainly productive and has continually allowed regular people much like me to reach their dreams. Your entire warm and friendly tutorial denotes a whole lot to me and a whole lot more to my office colleagues. Best wishes; from everyone of us.

  3. Heya i am for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It really useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and aid others like you aided me.

  4. Do you have a spam problem on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I was wanting to know your situation; many of us have developed some nice practices and we are looking to exchange solutions with other folks, be sure to shoot me an email if interested.

  5. Can I simply say what a reduction to search out someone who truly is aware of what theyre speaking about on the internet. You positively know learn how to convey a difficulty to light and make it important. Extra individuals need to read this and perceive this aspect of the story. I cant consider youre not more popular because you undoubtedly have the gift.

  6. I was curious if you ever considered changing the page layout of your website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?

  7. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is needed to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Cheers

  8. I just wish to inform you that I am new to writing a blog and utterly liked your site. Most likely I am most likely to bookmark your blog post . You simply have stunning article blog posts. Be Grateful For it for sharing with us your favorite blog write-up

  9. I genuinely enjoy your web page, however I’m having a difficulty: anytime I load one of your post in Safari, the right of the webpage is screwed — it is strange. May I mail you a screenshot? Anyways, continue your good job; I truly appreciate reading you.

  10. Hey there! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  11. Faytech North America is a touch screen Manufacturer of both monitors and pcs. They specialize in the design, development, manufacturing and marketing of Capacitive touch screen, Resistive touch screen, Industrial touch screen, IP65 touch screen, touchscreen monitors and integrated touchscreen PCs. Contact them at http://www.faytech.us, 121 Varick Street, New York, NY 10013, +1 646 205 3214

  12. Sapid Agency is a Search Engine Optimization company in New York City that provides SEO Services. Their proprietary SEO strategies help struggling websites and aspiring business owners to rank their websites higher in multiple search engines like Google , Yahoo and Bing. They provide local and gmb map ranking for businesses in NYC and many other local areas. Find more at https://www.sapidagency.com/ @ 145 E 57TH NEW YORK, NY 10022, USA, +1 971 341 5608 USA

  13. You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

  14. I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this web site. Thank you, I will try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your site?

  15. Thanks , I have recently been looking for info about this subject for a long time and yours is the best I’ve found out till now. But, what concerning the conclusion? Are you certain in regards to the source?

  16. The the very next time I read a weblog, Hopefully that this doesnt disappoint me as much as this blog. I am talking about, It was my method to read, but I really thought youd have something fascinating to state. All I hear is a few whining about something you could fix if you werent too busy seeking attention.

  17. If some one wishes to be updated with most recent technologies afterward he must be go to
    see this web page and be up to date every day.

  18. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  19. Hey very nice website!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your site and take the feeds also…I’m happy to find so many useful information here in the post, we need work out more strategies in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

  20. I was just searching for this information for a while. After six hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your site. I wonder what’s the lack of Google strategy that don’t rank this type of informative websites in top of the list. Usually the top websites are full of garbage.

  21. Hello There. I discovered your blog the use of msn. This is a very neatly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your helpful information. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely return.

  22. It’s actually nearly unattainable to come across well-advised viewers on this area, fortunately you come across as like you be aware of those things you’re writing about! Thank You

  23. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will be thankful to you.

  24. Hi! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic job!

  25. excellent submit, very informative. I ponder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  26. Whoa! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Excellent choice of colors!

  27. hello there and thank you for your info – I have certainly picked up anything new from right here. I did however expertise some technical issues using this site, since I experienced to reload the website lots of times previous to I could get it to load properly. I had been wondering if your web hosting is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but slow loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords. Well I am adding this RSS to my e-mail and can look out for a lot more of your respective intriguing content. Ensure that you update this again very soon..

  28. Hello my loved one! I wish to say that this article is awesome, great written and include almost all vital infos. I would like to see more posts like this .

  29. Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and everything. Nevertheless just imagine if you added some great visuals or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and videos, this website could undeniably be one of the very best in its niche. Terrific blog!

  30. Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  31. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

  32. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100 certain. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  33. I enjoy you because of all of your efforts on this web site. My mom really likes managing internet research and it’s easy to understand why. Most of us know all of the lively way you offer invaluable thoughts on the web site and cause response from visitors about this content so our own girl is certainly discovering a whole lot. Take advantage of the rest of the new year. You’re conducting a remarkable job.

  34. One thing I would really like to comment on is that weight loss program fast can be achieved by the suitable diet and exercise. Someone’s size not merely affects the look, but also the actual quality of life. Self-esteem, melancholy, health risks, and also physical capabilities are influenced in extra weight. It is possible to do everything right but still gain. In such a circumstance, a medical problem may be the perpetrator. While a lot of food rather than enough exercise are usually the culprit, common health concerns and key prescriptions can easily greatly enhance size. Kudos for your post in this article.

  35. Thanks for the points shared in your blog. Something else I would like to express is that losing weight is not supposed to be about going on a celebrity diet and trying to reduce as much weight that you can in a few days. The most effective way to shed pounds is by taking it slowly but surely and right after some basic ideas which can provide help to make the most from a attempt to lose fat. You may realize and already be following a few of these tips, nevertheless reinforcing awareness never does any damage.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here