Wildlife Disease and Zoonotics



Steve Bunk

Date of this Version

April 2004


Published in PLoS Biology. April 2004 | Volume 2 | Issue 4 | Pages 0427 - 0430. Permission to use. http://biology.plosjournals.org.


In 1967, mule deer in a research facility near Fort Collins, Colorado, in the United States apparently began to react badly to their captivity. At least, that was the guess of researchers working on the natural history and nutrition of the deer, which became listless and showed signs of depressed mood, hanging their heads and lowering their ears. They lost appetite and weight. Then they died—of emaciation, pneumonia, and other complications—or were euthanized. The scientists dubbed it chronic wasting disease (CWD), and for years they thought it might be caused by stress, nutritional deficiencies, or poisoning. A decade later, CWD was identified as one of the neurodegenerative diseases called spongiform encephalopathies, the most notorious example of which is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Nowadays, CWD is epidemic in the United States. Although no proof has yet emerged that it’s transmissible to humans, scientific authorities haven’t ruled out the possibility of a public health threat. The media have concentrated on this concern, and politicians have responded with escalated funding over the past two years for fundamental research into the many questions surrounding this mysterious disease.

Quite apart from how little is yet known about CWD, media interest is reason enough to step up investigation of it, says Mo Salman, a veterinary epidemiologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He’s been scientifically involved with BSE, since it was first discovered among cattle in the United Kingdom in 1986. He recalls predicting that lay interest in BSE would wane after five years. Instead, the disease was found in the mid-1990s to be capable of killing humans who ate tainted beef. “I was wrong, and it really changed my way of thinking, to differentiate between scientific evidence and the public perception,” Salman admits. “Because CWD is similar to BSE, the public perception is that we need to address this disease, to see if it has any link to human health.”