Filed Under: Mad Cow Disease

Those deer aren’t as scary as they look

In places including Wisconsin, Colorado, Canada, and Louisiana, activists like the Center for Media and Democracy’s John Stauber have been scaring the public (especially hunters) with “mad deer disease” tall tales worthy of any ghost-story session. But it looks like the media, a variety of government officials, and the public are all starting to wise up about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) — a mad-cow-like malady found in deer and elk — and its supposed danger to humans.

Louisiana wildlife administrator Tom Prickett tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “the first thing you notice when you discuss CWD is that there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘as far as we knows’ and ‘we thinks’ in the discussion,” but “there is no evidence that CWD can be contracted by humans.”

A government deer biologist told Wisconsin Public Radio last week that scaremongers have been relying on the “little caveat” that some danger might exist. The effect, he says, is that of “creating a bogeyman and scaring people.”

So is there any real risk at all? How can we quantify it? In April the Omaha World-Herald reported on research from Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner, which concluded that “those who eat the meat of deer infected with chronic wasting disease [CWD] are in no danger.”

Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reporter Scott Heiberger notes that the human danger from a deer-related car crash is far greater than that of eating venison. “Nine people died in deer-vehicle collisions in 2001 on Wisconsin highways,” he writes, “yet you don’t hear people saying they’ll stop driving.” And in Minnesota’s Brainerd Dispatch, world-renowned hunting columnist Babe Winkleman writes that “the possibility of a hunter being killed by a stray bullet, having a heart attack in the field, or being killed in an auto accident are far more real.”

Elsewhere, the Denver Rocky Mountain News reported this morning that a respected Colorado State University researcher is openly criticizing a colleague for overstating the human risk of contracting CWD, ostensibly in order to attract grant money for his work. Professor Terry Spraker told a meeting of the Colorado Agricultural Commission that “even though hundreds of thousands of people have handled and consumed infected animals, there has not been one confirmed case of CWD in humans.” And the Wisconsin Medical Society agrees, saying: “There is no need to panic. We have not seen a case of CWD in people.”

University of Wisconsin infectious disease specialist Dennis Maki adds that people shouldn’t side with scaremongers who insist that CWD represents an American version of the European “mad cow” problem. “We feel pretty confident,” Maki says, “[that] we are not seeing a British-style spread of this disease in the United States.”

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