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New Research: CWD Poses Risk to Humans

A new report from the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) is sounding the alarm on chronic wasting disease (CWD). CAPI, who advises the federal government on agriculture policy, commissioned a study by University of Alberta economists, Dr. Vic Adamowicz and Dr. Ellen Goddard and colleagues “to undertake an analysis of CWD developments and the policy measures needed to prevent the spread and transmission of this horrific disease throughout the Prairie provinces, as well as its potential risks and impacts on the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector.”

According to the report, there is no possible way to now eradicate the disease, as it is firmly entrenched in Alberta and Saskatchewan, not to mention many states. “So policies and regulations to monitor and reduce spread of the disease are increasingly important.”

CAPI concluded that in addition to human health concerns, the disease’s spread threatens agriculture, wildlife, and food security. The report recommends 10 policy options for CWD management in Canada. They are:

1. Prevent the spread to boreal caribou by targeted harvesting of deer and monitoring (AB and SK).

2. Require animal testing for all farmed cervids slaughtered (dying) in Canada.

3. Make the Chronic Wasting Disease Herd Certification Program mandatory.

4. Employ hunter harvest to reduce spread of CWD in wild populations (spatial targeting, etc.).

5. Increase monitoring / surveillance for CWD in wild populations (improve sampling, public investment in testing, other options).

6. Improvements in information provision about CWD.

7. Prohibit or delay repopulation of CWD depopulated farms with cervids or                  other animals such as bison or cattle.

8. Remediate sites known to have CWD present in soil, plants, etc.

9. Provide incentives to address carcass disposal problems in hunting.

10. Close cervid farms.

However, implementing policies will not be easy. While some of the policy options are currently or partially being undertaken in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario, not all provinces and states follow the same policies. And, policies implemented within Canada could be less effective without coordinating CWD policies with the US, where CWD is spreading at an alarming rate and is expected to further spread to Canadian provinces through our southern border.

Another problem with instituting policies is the impact on stakeholders that all have different priorities. Stakeholders include hunters, professional outfitters, landowners, Indigenous peoples, cervid farmers, the cattle and agriculture industries, and the general public, who all view wildlife as important; however, there is much division between stakeholders. An example of this is hunters and professional outfitters. Hunters want to see expanded hunter harvest to help control CWD while outfitters “find unacceptable any strategy that increases the number of animals to be hunted (culling either elk or deer or providing additional hunting tags).”

As well, provincial wildlife management is not allowed to infringe on Aboriginal or treaty rights. So, without Indigenous consent, policies might not be enacted. And with CWD continuing to spread north and closer to caribou populations, especially endangered populations such as in Alberta, the food security of Indigenous peoples becomes a concern for government. There is even talk of creating a “deer-depopulated buffer zone to separate caribou range from infected animals,” which by my estimation, wouldn’t go over very well with several of the stakeholders.

And now, a soon-to-be-published report on chronic wasting disease has raised serious concerns about CWD infecting humans.

Hermann Schaetzl, a veterinary scientist at the University of Calgary helped conduct confirmatory tests on an experiment conducted on macaque monkeys where the monkeys, which share an estimated 93 percent of their DNA with humans, were fed CWD-infected meat and some developed CWD infections.

According to Schaetzl, the chance of a human becoming infected with CWD is very real. Considering the number of people harvesting and eating wild game has grown considerably in recent years, concerns are validated.

Neil Cashman, a leading prion expert at the University of British Columbia, who admits to no longer eating deer or elk meat, said in a recent CBC interview, “I would have expected a human case to emerge in the US before Canada. But on the weight of evidence, I think it’s not only not impossible, it’s kind of expected at this point.”

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