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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Old Fears, New Hype Fuel CWD News

The frustrating uncertainties of chronic wasting disease fired old fears for many folks the past two weeks after a Minnesota doctor predicted CWD would probably soon jump from deer to humans.

That forecast by Dr. Mike Osterholm at the University of Minnesota was delivered Feb. 7 to legislators at the state capitol in St. Paul. His prediction sparked mortal fears, scary articles and zombie-deer headlines that swept the internet like a virus. Or was it a previously unknown Spiroplasma bacterium?

Why do I ask? Because just as Osterholm’s prediction started fading from Facebook, a hunters’ group from Pennsylvania – the United Sportsmen of Pennsylvania– unleashed an even larger email storm and viral video link claiming a cure for CWD.

The video features the USP’s John Eveland, a longtime critic of Pennsylvania’s deer-management program. Eveland claimed CWD isn’t caused by prions – rogue proteins -- after all. Eveland blamed a Spiroplasma bacterium, and referenced work by Frank Bastian, a researcher at Louisiana State University. Bastian thinks prions are just the byproducts of a bacterial infection and, therefore, CWD could be cured with vaccines and antibiotics.

The miraculous news didn’t end there. Eveland and the USP laid out a 10-year plan for Bastian’s breakthroughs, beginning with a handy test-kit hunters could use to check deer for CWD while field dressing it. The test-kit could be ready within 18 months, presumably in time for Pennsylvania’s 2020 hunting seasons.

Eveland also said Bastian’s pending vaccines will be as significant as Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine of 1955, and predicted a Nobel Prize for Bastian’s ambitious efforts, which include …

-- CWD vaccines for captive deer and elk, and then wild deer and elk, within three years.

-- Tests to cure scrapie in sheep, mad-cow in cattle, and prion diseases in wildlife within five years.

-- Tests to cure Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans in five to six years.

-- Tests to cure ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases in six to seven years.

-- Antibiotics and vaccines to cure all human prion diseases in eight to 10 years.

To ensure those miracles happen, the USP launched a “Go-Fund-Me” campaign to raise $250,000 to support Bastian’s projects.

Hmm. If mankind is a decade away from curing ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and all forms of prion-triggered diseases in humans and other mammals, would we leave all the glory and responsibility to a group of disgruntled Pennsylvania hunters and a Go-Fund-Me campaign? Even if my skepticism is misplaced, shouldn’t they tackle the human ailments before fine-tuning CWD test-kits for deer hunters?

Still, I hope I’m wrong. Maybe Bastian is a modern-day Ignaz Semmelweis, the Vienna, Austria, obstetrician who realized doctors should wash their hands before examining or treating child-bearing women. When he imposed simple washing routines at his hospital in 1847, mortality rates for mothers in the birthing ward dropped dramatically.

Hospital doctors of that era routinely examined corpses and sick people, and then attended women in childbirth without scrubbing first. No one knew of germs, and Semmelweis didn’t know why hand-washing curtailed sickness, but his records showed patients quit catching so many fevers and other diseases when doctors scrubbed between visits.

Semmelweis cut his hospital’s death rates, but doctors elsewhere ignored him, and their death rates remained high. By 1865 Semmelweis became clinically depressed by the rejection, and another doctor lured him into an asylum. When Semmelweis tried to flee, he was held, beaten and strapped into a straightjacket. He died two weeks later, probably from the injuries.

Bastian’s theories about bacteria causing CWD have been ignored and scoffed at for over a decade, but at least his peers aren’t beating him to death behind bars.

The National Deer Alliance and 10 other hunter-based conservation organizations issued a press release Tuesday supporting the PennsylvaniaGame Commission’s CWD strategies, including this rebuttal to claims made by the USP and Bastian:

“There is international agreement among scientific agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that prions are believed to be the infectious agent that causes (CWD),” said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife-disease ecologist and co-director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab. “Viruses and bacteria are not supported as potential causes of (CWD) for a number of reasons, which include lack of an immune response, resistance to normal disinfection procedures, environmental persistence for years to decades, and intensive genetic study.”

And yet … Wouldn’t it be great if Bastian were right, and that he and the United Sportsmen of Pennsylvania were honored 150 years from now for their brave, intelligent defiance of history’s knuckle-dragging critics? If CWD and other prion diseases have a bacterial origin, scientists could more easily create vaccines to treat these always-fatal diseases. Everyone hopes his theories get vetted, proven and replicated in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, despite everyone’s hopes for easy, forehead-smacking solutions long overlooked by our best and brightest, CWD is only getting worse. As of Wednesday, Wisconsin had a record 1,042 positive cases for the 2018 fiscal year, and Tennessee – which was considered CWD-free just four months ago – identified its 185th case Tuesday.

Given the 10-year timetable Eveland laid out, we’ll know soon enough if Bastian’s genius earns him consideration for a Nobel Prize. If not, he’ll have at least one thing in common with Jonas Salk: This famous American researcher and virologist never won a Nobel Prize, either.

Patrick Durkin photo:

-- Renewed fears about chronic wasting disease and new hopes for curing it in wild and captive deer generated a viral spread of articles, photos and videos on the internet in February.

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