‘Disease from outer space’ States confront the spread of CWD in deer

In March, 1996, the UK government confirmed what had been known for years: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or mad cow disease) was killing humans in the UK.

The various forms of transmissible encephalopathies have different names according to the species – scrapie in sheep, feline spongiform encephalopathy in cats, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.

But they’re all the same affliction, caused by infectious proteins, or prions.

I haven’t been following the CWD outbreak in deer, but it seems to be where BSE was about 1993: There’s this mysterious new disease no one ever thoughts would cross over to humans, but now, maybe?

Jim Robbins of the New York Times writes that, as darkness closed in, one hunter after another stopped at this newly opened game check station, deer carcasses loaded in the beds of their pickups.

They had been given licenses for a special hunt, and others would follow. Jessica Goosmann, a wildlife technician with Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department, stepped outside to greet them, reaching for the neck of each freshly killed deer to cut an incision and remove a lymph node for testing.

On the edge of this south-central Montana village, where deer hunting is a way of life, the game check station has become the front line of the state’s efforts to stop the spread of a deadly infection known as chronic wasting disease.

It has ravaged deer herds throughout the United States and Canada and forced the killing of thousands of infected animals in 24 states and three Canadian provinces. It has also been found in Norway and South Korea. With the disease widespread in Wyoming, the Dakotas and the province of Alberta, Montana officials had been bracing for its emergence.

So in November, when biologists discovered it in six deer in this part of Montana and in another near the Canadian border, officials began setting up special hunts and stations for testing.

“It wasn’t a surprise that we found it,” said John Vore, game management bureau chief for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “It was a disappointment, but not a surprise.”

On Friday, the department announced that two more deer from this region, taken early in the special hunt, tested positive for the disease. Other test results are pending.

Chronic wasting disease is a contagious neurological disease that infects elk, deer, moose and caribou, and reduces their brains to a spongy consistency. Animals become emaciated, behave strangely and eventually die. It’s not known to be transferred to humans. Neither is it known to be spread from wild to domestic animals. There is no treatment, although a vaccine has been successful in tests in wild deer.

It is among a class of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE. Most experts believe the infectious agent is something called a prion, a misfolded cellular protein found in the nervous system and lymph tissue. The disease was first noted in captive deer in Colorado in the 1960s. The most closely related animal disease is scrapie in sheep.

“It’s a very unusual disease,” said Matthew Dunfee, an expert at the Wildlife Management Institute in Fort Collins, Co. and project director for the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. “Some experts say it’s a disease from outer space.”

 

Improperly canned elk leads to botulism

Doug likes to call me the canning queen; this is something I embrace. I’ve detailed my recent skill development in home food preservation, which has been part necessity and part interest. I’m a jam/sauce/pickle kind of guy though. Canned elk (or other meats) isn’t for me. It’s not a safety issue, because tested recipes exist at the fabulous National Center For Home Food Preservation site, it’s more of a quality thing.

Deviating from the prescribed steps can create the perfect environment for Clostridium botulinum spore outgrowth, germination and toxin production. Of the 20-30 cases of botulism in the U.S. every year, the majority are linked to improper home canning. It’s not just meat, last year in Oregon three folks became ill after eating under-processed beets. images-3

KPLU in Seattle WA reports that a lawyer for the state of Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board gave himself botulism after eating elk that he canned using an adapted old family recipe which he processed in a pressure cooker and sped up the cooling time. Lucky to be alive, after months of recovery he has trouble walking and his taste buds don’t work.

On the Friday before Mother’s Day this year, Mike O’Connell was looking forward to spending the weekend with his wife at their home in the Seattle area. During the week, he lives alone in Olympia where he works. But he woke that morning with the strangest affliction: double vision.

The next morning, he felt even worse. He was bumping into walls. He called his wife.
“I told her, ‘You know, I’m going to stop by the ER on the way up just so somebody can tell me I’m okay and I’m not having a stroke,”’ he said.

“I didn’t know enough to bring up the fact that I had eaten canned meat,” said O’Connell.
Canned meat. You see, the night before O’Connell woke up with double vision, he had eaten some elk meat from a hunting trip. He canned it himself about a week earlier.

“Borrowed a pressure cooker, used an old family recipe for canning,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell’s mother had canned everything when he was a kid. He wanted to recapture a bit of his childhood. But things started going wrong from the start.

The pressure cooker was too small. O’Connell had already browned the meat in a cast iron pan. So he decided to shortcut the process. Once the jars sealed airtight he would take them out of the pressure cooker and start a new batch. The next day, he heard a pop in the pantry.

O’Connell found the jar with the popped seal, put it in the fridge and ate it the next day. He says it was delicious. The following week he heard another lid pop. Just as he had before, O’Connell found the jar and stuck it in the fridge. And a few days later he ate it for supper.
His breathing was getting shallow.

Daughter Weisfield was frustrated with the lack of answers and scared. She called a doctor she knew, a neurosurgeon. He ran through a short checklist of things to rule out. That list included a disease first identified in the 18th century: botulism. Weisfield looked it up online.

“It just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because it was every single symptom just laid out exactly what my dad was experiencing,” she said.
Botulism is a paralyzing illness caused by what Centers for Disease Control calls the most potent toxin known to science. It’s rare; there were only 20 foodborne cases nationwide in 2011, just one in Washington state last year.

The doctors didn’t even wait to confirm botulism. They ordered a dose of anti-toxin from the CDC. Now the medical mystery was solved.

After receiving the anti-toxin, O’Connell transferred to Swedish Hospital in Seattle for rehab. It took just days for the Botulism to paralyze O’Connell. The recovery would be painfully slow.

“My eyes were the first thing to come back. I still walk with difficulty and use a cane. I have no taste with the exception of chocolate, so I buy chocolate ensure, chocolate mints and night before last, I found where they sell chocolate wine so I had some of that, too,” O’Connell said.

Don’t eat (elk) poop

The same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened eight Colorado children has been found in local elk droppings, leading investigators to conclude the children acquired the E. coli from elk poop.

Illness among the children has??? occurred sporadically throughout the summer and early fall, beginning in ???July and most recently in late October.

"Today’s lab results tell us it is very likely the children ???acquired the E. coli infection from exposure to elk droppings in the??? environment," said Alicia Cronquist, epidemiologist at the state??? health department.

Verotoxigenic E. coli like O157:H7 occur in approximately 10 per cent of all ruminants, regardless of diet or farm conditions. They weren’t factory farmed elk.