In The Field

ABS: Tracking prion disease in the wild

A new project is aiming to predict the potential spread of the world’s only prion disease found in wild animals. The research aims to second-guess the effects of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal condition similar to mad cow disease that affects several species of deer. Given the conservation implications of the deadly disease for the deer, and the uncertainty over whether it can be spread to humans, it’s a timely research effort.

CWD is endemic in parts of the United States such as the mid-northwest, but is a newcomer to upstate New York. (It was first spotted in April 2005 when a deerhunter provided a fawn for a firemen’s dinner; subsequent tests showed that it was infected with deformed prion protein but by then the diners had already eaten it. Whether they will develop mad cow-like symptoms in the coming decades remains to be seen.)

Amy Dechen of the State University of New York in Syracuse has been fitting healthy deer with GPS collars in the New York woodlands in a bid to find out where they roam and how these patterns of movement might influence the spread of the contagion by infected individuals. The capture and tagging of infected deer is not allowed. Although Dechen only has preliminary results, the information on range size and roaming patterns of the deer could prove valuable in calculating where and when the disease might spring up in other wild deer. As for whether it can be transmitted to humans, the jury is still out. The WHO states in its factsheet on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies that no material from infected deer or elk be used in human or animal food, but adds that there is so far no evidence that the disease can be spread to humans.

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