Landing the cover of Sports Illustrated is a coveted prize; but the 2013 Super Bowl edition was something all star Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis could have done without. The feature article accused Lewis of taking a bizarre (and banned), performance-enhancing drug: velvet deer antler.
Long prized as an aphrodisiac in Asia, velvet deer antler has recently been repurposed and is being aggressively marketed in North America as an under-the-tongue natural steroid spray. In reality it is nothing but snake-oil, but athletes in almost every sport and at every level bought into it’s purported benefits. The controversy escalated through the Superbowl and beyond. Sales surged from all the exposure. Then, under great pressure from elite athletes, leagues, and lawyers, the World Anti-doping Agency backed off of their ban. Velvet antler is being marketed as a safe and legal performance-enhancing substance.
But despite the big names and the media frenzy, a much bigger and far more consequential story was missed. North America is in the midst of a massive epidemic of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). CWD is an always fatal, elk and deer version of BSE or Mad Cow Disease. Eerily, CWD was first confirmed on a game farm the same week of the stunning news that BSE had jumped to people, causing a variation of the same disease that killed Ellie Steiger.
Now, people spraying a potentially CWD-infected velvet antler concoction into their mouths presents a terrifying possibility, far worse than anything previous… because unlike either mad cow or the human version that killed Ellie, CWD is highly contagious. Scientists say that if CWD were to develop in people like it does in deer, it would be a nightmare: an undetectable and always fatal disease spreading silently in millions of people, potentially for decades before we even realize it’s happening. Yet when it emerges, there are no cures nor even any treatments for any of these diseases. Like Ellie, those afflicted will die within a few months.
This sobering thought is something we all hope won’t happen, but history is littered with examples of just such pandemics fostered in domestic animals. The 1918 flu virus killed more people in 25 weeks than AIDS has in 25 years. It came from chickens.
The reality is we have unwittingly created most of the infectious diseases we suffer. Capturing and confining wild animals is a veritable disease factory. Agriculture may well be our greatest invention, and has brought phenomenal benefits; but there have also been unintended consequences—disease. It reads like a shopping list:
Tuberculosis (goats,cattle, camels)
Leprosy (water buffalo)
Small Pox (cattle, camels)
Influenza (fowl, swine)
AIDS (apes, monkeys)
Mad Cow (cattle)
SARS (palm civets)
Even the common cold falls into this category… an invisible companion from one of our most beloved and useful animals—the horse.
So how did we get here and an what can we do about it?
To understand the complexity of the story and diseases spread by domestication (like CWD), you need first understand why it didn’t emerge until very recently.
Through the 1800s, North America’s wildlife was exploited and depleted to the brink of extinction. Herds of bison, elk, deer, antelope, and birds of every description were hunted to supply markets for meat, hides, bones, or feathers. In some cases they served as nothing more than targets—for practice or amusement—and simply left to rot. With wildlife herds dwindling to oblivion, leaders of the day realized that something had to be done before the situation became irreversible. They knew as long as wildlife had a price on it’s head profit driven enterprises would wipe out what remained of the last wild herds. The courts had declared wildlife a public resource, and it gave governments the right to step in. They banned commercial markets; and implemented wildlife management controls to ensure healthy populations thrived into the future. By removing the profit incentive, they not only saved wildlife from extinction, they set the stage for the greatest replenishment the world has ever seen.
This set the stage for major industries to equip and service wildlife enthusiasts. This North American Model of Wildlife Conservation stands as the world’s greatest known example of sustainable development—adding billions of dollars to the GDP every year. But it also reduced the fostering and spread of animal-borne diseases by not allowing the mass capture and ‘farming’ of wildlife.
For over 70 years wildlife thrived, with teeming herds and flocks restoring healthy ecosystems and vibrant economies. But all of it was taken for granted… and then, foolishly, changed.
Ignoring the threat of CWD in 1980 self interest groups lobbied government and laws were changed to privatize and commercialize wildlife. Elk and deer farms for shooting ‘sport’, meat and antler velvet sprang up in the United States and Canada. Scientists knew the stakes. They asked the questions about what this new Game Farming industry would mean for wildlife; what would it mean for us? What were the health risks? The more they dug into the science the more horrific implications came to light. Scientists had proven that the infectious prion agent that causes the disease was able to persist on anything it came in contact with—in soil and water, on tables, lab floors, equipment… CWD prions are amazingly resilient and the disease is highly contagious—especially in areas with large concentration of animals such as game farms. Moreover, scientists warned that CWD is but one of a host of diseases, parasites, and other threats proving that policy changes to allow commercial game farming would be a catastrophic mistake. They were ignored; they were muzzled; and they were 100% correct. Soon after game farming was introduced 42 people had to be treated for TB… an ominous sign of what could come next.
And then, in 1996 Canada confirmed that Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) had been found on a Saskatchewan game farm. Agriculture Canada’s Manager of Animal Health confidently assured the public that the incident was isolated, and that CWD is not a significant threat to people or even to deer and elk. The scientific community was appalled by the statement.
The official was quietly moved out, but the policy continued. Government spin ramped into overdrive. Anyone who spoke out openly on the dangers of CWD, especially when it came to potential human infection, were branded as troublemakers and fear-mongers.
After the Saskatchewan discovery, the infected animals were traced to imports from South Dakota, CWD was soon confirmed on dozens of game farms; and shortly after the disease spread beyond the fences to wild deer and elk. Similar stories emerged across North America. By 2001 the situation with CWD had become so severe in North America, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture declared a state of emergency. Scientists continued to advise caution regarding the risk to people, but some governments dismiss the risk, using language nearly identical to that from the U.K.’s mad cow crisis. It took that government 10 years to admit that eating BSE infected meat was killing people.
But not everyone drank the Kool-aid.
In Saskatchewan, Joe Schemenaur, a Director with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, had grown increasingly alarmed. He had heard the repeated warnings from scientists about CWD, as rancher he knew about mad cow. He had also learned that some people had been infected with the human version of mad cow during surgery, from mere traces of the prion pathogen left on surgical instruments that had been sterilized. Then a call from friend and fellow hunter left Schemenaur cold:
“Joe it’s Jim King; thought you’d want to know… officials showed up to get that deer… you know, the one I shot that had ear tags… escaped from the game farm. They didn’t waste any time. Need to test it for CWD. But get this: even on the chance that it might be infected… these guys were suited up head to toe—special coveralls, masks, rubber gloves, the works. Ask them about risk and they downplay it… but they sure aren’t taking any chances!”
The deer tested positive; and unlike the officials with full suits, gloves, and masks, Jim King had field-dressed the deer without taking any precautions at all. He had almost certainly used his knife to cut other food. Then Joe Schemenaur and friends used the same facilities, the same meat saw, and the same sink for an elk a week later. If people could get mad cow through sterilized surgical implements at a hospital, what could be the consequences for these hunters and CWD?
Joe’s concerns are echoed by Dr. Neil Cashman, Scientific Director of PrioNet Canada and one of the country’s foremost experts on these diseases:
“The human prion diseases are just dreadful; they’re not a disease you’d want to wish on your worst enemy.”
“CWD is spreading like wildfire. From a few foci (animals) in Saskatchewan, it has now come to involve deer and elk in Alberta and Saskatchewan and there are no geographical barriers. It will spread until it infects the entire continent. It also spreads across species. …It can persist in water; it can persist in soil. It’s spreading without check. It’s arguably the most contagious prion disease, and the human health impact is unknown. We just frankly do not know if humans are susceptible to chronic wasting disease. It’s an emergency in slow motion.”
But the real nightmare of CWD is that it is not mad cow. CWD is much, much worse.
Today we’re sitting on a situation that has the best scientists in the world holding their breath: what happens if this jumps to people like mad cow did and manifests in us the same way it does in deer and elk… where it’s highly contagious, where saliva alone is sufficient to spread it? Scientists say that this scenario would be one of the worst pandemics in human history tens of millions of people would die. Just imagine if you’re in an airplane and suddenly the pilot cannot for the life of him remember how to fly. People with the human versions of these diseases have been standing in front of a bank machine and they can’t make it work. It happens suddenly; and unlike Alzheimer’s patients, who take an average of seven years to die, these prion diseases kill in seven months.
SARS, AIDS and the “bird flu” could pale in comparison to a human variant of CWD. The health care costs would be all but immeasurable because it’s not just that we don’t know how to treat it… it’s not at all clear how we could prevent its spread.
Yet none of this should have happened. We know that confining wild animals incubates disease. We know that moving animals moves disease. When asked how CWD is spreading, prominent scientist Bruce Chesbro answered “by truck.”
And now, after the Sports Illustrated article, the Superbowl fiasco, the exposure, the media frenzy, and the World Anti-doping Agency green-lighting it, velvet antler sales are exploding. The industry is lobbying for expansion, and we face the prospect of hundreds of thousands or millions people spraying potentially CDW-infected velvet antler mist into their mouths. Repeated experiments have shown that spraying is a highly efficient means to transmit the disease—so it changes the risk dramatically. And for what?
History and science has shown that we’re playing disease roulette. We don’t need bio-terrorists or accidents from labs; our system of domesticating animals for profit is doing it. We are doing it. We now know how this is happening… and what we can do to stop it.
This is serious, this is real, this is happening now.