(Excerpt from Rowledge, Darrel – No Accident, Public Policy and Chronic Wasting Disease in Canada)
“Better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than have an ambulance at the bottom.” (Origin uncertain, Malins 1895)
In all of recorded history, few factors rival the influence of infectious diseases. Massive epidemics have so ruthlessly, so indiscriminately, and so dramatically laid waste entire populations that questions about their nature, causes, spread, and, especially, questions of appropriate response, have beguiled leaders for millennia. 10, 11, 12
Such was the irony of an invisible force of unfathomable power!
Utterly incomprehensible for all but the last blink of history, diseases seemed to comport as well to superstition or faith as to reason: Unseeable microscopic pathogens…? Acts or anger of the gods…? One was surely as fantastic as the other.
Today, in our increasingly globalized community — with now more than a century of proof of “germ theory,” and countless hard-learned lessons about invasive organisms — there is no more important responsibility in all of government than that of defining responsible public policy to deal with infectious diseases, parasites, pests, or contaminants.
A single unintended instance can cause massive, irreversible harm… killing thousands or even millions of people or other animals, and inflicting enormous costs—on people, communities, economies, and ecosystems. Even relatively tiny instances such as the recent SARS epidemic, which sprang from Asian game farms to kill 800 people in 2002—2003, cost $136 billion.13 Of the 432 cases in Canada, 44 people died.14
Given that stark reality, the wisdom of the “precautionary principle” is irrefutable. Such “look before you leap,” “better safe than sorry” axioms have been present throughout history—in this context, defined more clearly as:
“A moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.” — Raffensberger & Tickner Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle
While it is wise to take care in all public policy, the limitation specified — to actions or policies that “might cause severe or irreversible harm” — is noteworthy. First, it leaves no doubt as to the gravity of the issues and the importance of the precautionary principle. Second, it eliminates excessive or frivolous application. This is clearly a very high bar… but even a limited review of severe and irreversible consequences already in our history leaves no question: failure is not an option.
Tragically, and while at this point a mere and pale hint of what might be, the introduction of chronic wasting disease (CWD) into Canada is precisely a case in point.
In the mid-late 1980s, initiatives to legalize and promote commercial game farming were flagged by wildlife scientists, pathologists, conservation groups, and other citizens as carrying clear threats of just such “severe and irreversible harm.” Not least among the many concerns were diseases and parasites for which no adequate means of testing or control existed—even if one could assume all due diligence and complete compliance.15, 16
Those and other flags of concern were somewhat offset (certainly not drowned out) by innocuous-sounding claims that raising warm, fuzzy wildlife would be the perfect op- portunity to diversify agriculture. In many ways, the case opposing was a victim of its own weight: Not only did opponents and scientists have to compete with the plight of struggling farmers and ranchers, each of the initiative’s myriad of complicated concepts and interwoven issues and threats, presented a formidable challenge — in explanation — to an all too busy public. To name but a few:
Conservation policy experts pointed out that game farming contradicted every major principle of our phenomenally successful system of conservation; but al- most no one knew what that meant.
“With regard to parasites and diseases, introduction of exotics has been likened to opening Pandara’s Box17 or “like introducing rabbits to Australia”;18 but there were reassuring claims of tests and protocol.
Economists warned that — even without those costs — the scheme simply wasn’t economically viable;19 while their work was buried in a drawer potential game farmers were lavished with baseless claims of profit.
Echoing the concerns regarding diseases and parasites, top wildlife law enforcement officials warned that illegal movement and trafficking in wildlife and wild- life parts (second only to narcotics in volume and value) would only be assisted by the establishment or expansion of legal markets;20 but there were claims of tamper-proof eartags and modern computer inventories.
Determining the legitimacy of claims and grasping the full effect how these would all interact and play out over time would require a considerable and comprehensive effort—far beyond that undertaken in any jurisdiction save Wyoming. Unfortunately, in Alberta (and most of the rest of the continent), the science, the warnings, and the precautionary principle were all ignored. Over significant protest and through grotesque manipulations of public process, commercial domestication policies were forced through—literally and practically enabling the all but certain consequences, including the introduction of CWD and other diseases.21
Now, even in the face of those clearly severe, and in all probability irreversible, consequences (like CWD), what makes this far more disturbing is that we are still missing the lessons of intelligent forethought and analysis. Long-standing, written commitments for complete and comprehensive assessments, from Prime Minister Chrétien and Premier Klein, remain unfulfilled.22
Yet it is only through comprehensive examination that the legitimacy of the science and the true scope of interaction becomes apparent: These failures are systemic—going far, far beyond CWD. And just as it was with “unseeable germs,” without that comprehension, we will remain all but oblivious… oblivious to the reality of issues and threats, oblivious to our role, and oblivious to the fundamental processes so vital to even understand responsible public policy—much less be able to sufficiently explain, enact, and defend it in a complex fast-moving world.
A few, frequently overlooked and interrelating facts provide background and retrospective insight:
First, despite our natural tendency to focus on people, the vast majority of disease threats begin from, and extend to, other species throughout global ecosystems and economies.
Second, while we separate the eco-sciences, typically treat jurisdictions as if they were distinct, think in terms of wild vs domestic, and so on… pathogens neither think nor care—about our perspectives, our jurisdictional or geographic divisions, our bureaucratic or budgetary constraints, or anything else. They simply are: Relentless opportunists.
Third, while usually only discovered or re-discovered following “disasters,” the utility and convenience of our reductionist, isolating focus — separating things into our areas of discipline and specialty — has been as double-edged as it has been keen. It is an approach that is enormously powerful, yet one that both belies and hides the reality of the “big picture” and all of its relentless connections. Hidden, as well, are the potentially horrific consequences that can follow mindless acts, or a less than comprehensive approach to policy.
Whether the threat of invasive species, or the disastrous overfishing that destroyed the Atlantic fishery, or regarding the myriad of diseases and parasites in a very mobile world… failure to deliberately and carefully weigh the broad perspective, long-term consequences is nothing less than an invitation to suffer them. Call it a disease of tunnel thinking: without a demonstrably legitimate and carefully mapped destination, faster digging may seem like progress… right up until the stunning realization of having tunneled into some earthly shade of hell.
That is exactly how a narrow, short-term, profit-driven mindset led to caging Asian palm civets to provide meat for a niche delicacy market… only to unleash Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Even in the face of twenty-first century medicine, it killed about ten percent of the people infected. Similarly, such were the policies and practices that turned simple herbivores into carnivores and even cannibals, initiated and then exacerbated Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the ‘mad cow’ epidemic— eventually spreading its lethal brain-wasting scourge to people and sending shockwaves reverberating through global eco-connections that most policy makers did not even know existed.23, 24
While certainly dire to the families of the afflicted, from a global and historical perspective, SARS and mad cow are mere blips on the radar screen. Nearly insignificant in scale, they are relevant here primarily because they are recent. Even so, the insights they offer are profound. They show that:
To the extent we are oblivious to, or ignore these fundamentals, we do so at our peril. All the simplistic rhetoric notwithstanding, the best government isn’t the smallest. It isn’t even judged by size; and it certainly isn’t non-government. The best government is precisely the size and shape needed to understand and enact policies that will foster healthy, sustainable, beneficial enterprise—while protecting us from the chaos of unintended consequences. Free market decisions are enormously valuable to fire our economy and reward efficiency, but they are simple price-for-quality considerations that are all but devoid of foresight or conscience.
That reality — so graphically and repeatedly laid out through history, and often in is- sues like infectious diseases — is exactly why we require our elected public servants to swear oaths of allegiance to the public interest and to the dedicated processes and professionalism it requires:
In a system driven by competitive private interests, due diligence in designing and enforcing public policy is our only fail-safe: protecting our communities, our economies, and our ecosystems from ourselves; from the cumulative effects of competing self interests working within limited and pliable systems.
The design of that guiding policy is a sacred trust that demands, above all else, an unfailing commitment to the fundamentals. Only by protecting the public, can we protect individual freedom, private enterprise, and personal prosperity.
The fact that this reality is not well understood, or may initially be perceived as digression or overstatement even within institutions that “must” know better, only confirms the perilous state in which we find ourselves. Similarly, those who would dismiss CWD as a mere wildlife issue are as tragically ignorant as they are shortsighted. CWD is indeed a wild-life issue; which not only reflects the fact that the disease is now here and out of control in Canada, it hints at the larger truth: that life is wild, and it is out of our control—our success in capturing and confining some of it notwithstanding.
Domestication has brought amazing productivity. But never without cost; and never without consequence. Assessing where those costs and consequences overwhelm our interests and those of our children, and then steering us clear with comprehensive policy, is the single great imperative of our policy makers.
To truly grasp this simple kernel is to uncover its larger context. And it lays open a clear, and very disturbing status—of policies and practices that, in many areas, have not just passed the margin, they are hugely into deficit and fast approaching the absurd. They are absurd because we know better. Unlike the unfathomable mysteries we once faced, we now have a substantial understanding of biology; we know full and well that our reductionist focus serves to conceal the big picture; and we know that negligence or willful ignorance are inexcusable.
These are the lessons of our wild-life and our CWD tragedy. We can certainly accept the responsibility, gain perspective, do the math, and learn the lessons… But, like the introduction of the disease, it will be a choice, not an accident.
“Suggesting that politicians use a scientific approach for policy…? Interesting… Well hey, good luck with that!” Dr. Terry Kreeger, WY
“Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been described in mule deer (Williams and Young 1980) and elk (Williams and Young 1982). The causative agent has not been isolated, but the disease appears to be closely related to scrapie, a significant disease in sheep (Williams and Young 1980). CWD is also extremely similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which has become an extremely important disease and economic concern for dairy cattle, particularly in Britain. No diagnostic tests are available for this disease in wildlife. Its occurrence must be demonstrated postmortem.” Bob Lanka, et al. WY Game and Fish Department, 1990
10) Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 500 5th Ave. New York NY 10110, 1999
11) Greger, Michael, MD, Bird Flu — A virus of our own hatching Lantern Books, ISBN 1590560981 — eversion available online: http//birdflubook.com
12) Nikiforuk, Andrew Pandemonium Penguin Group, 90 Eglinton Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto, ON M4P 2Y3, 2006
13) Center for Disease Control— Online http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars, Journal of Virology — Online http://jvi.asm.org
14) CDC Ibid.
15) Lanka, Bob; Guenzel, Rich; Fralick, Gary; and Thiele; Analysis and Recommendations on the Application by Mr. John T. Dorrance III to Import and Possess Native and Ex- otic Species, Game Division, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Cheyenne, WY March, 1990
16) Geist, Valerius & McTaggart-Cowan, Editors, Wildlife Conservation Policy Detselig Enterprises Ltd. 210-1220 Kensington Rd. N. W. Calgary, Alberta T2N 3P5, 1995
17) Lanka; Ibid p. 15.
18) Dr. Bill Samuel, pers. comm.
19) Paish, Howard, & Associates Ltd., A Policy Oriented Analysis of the Game Farming and Game Ranching Potential of the Yukon Prepared for Government of Yukon Department of Renewable Resources, Natural Resource Planning and Analysis, Whitehorse, Yukon, March 1987 pp. 96,
20) Grosz, Terry; Head of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pers. comm.
21) Rowledge, Darrel; Covering Their Tracks University of Alberta Parkland Post, Winter 2001.
22) Ibid, see actual letters Appendix
23) BSE Inquiry Report Committee Members, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, Mrs June Bridgeman CB, Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, 2000 available e-version http://www.bseinquiry. gov.uk
24) Nikiforuk, Andrew Pandemonium Penguin Group, 90 Eglinton Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto, ON M4P 2Y3, 2006