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. Its effects on deer, elk and other cervids include weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and certain death.
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 — including Arkansas — 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.
There are thought to be eight strains of CWD, and every time one goes through an animal there’s a chance it might adapt in a way that allows it to pass into humans, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
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.
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.
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.”