Tracking a chronic disease

Vet students are testing during deer season for chronic wasting disease.

Beth Hornby

University student Laura Peterson got her first hands-on anatomy lesson cutting out deer lymph nodes in the flat-bed of a pickup truck for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ chronic wasting disease study.

“OK, there’s his trachea, feel that,” first-year veterinary medicine student Kristine Krausser said, guiding Peterson through surgery. “Now we’re going to go around here and feel for some nodular tissue back there.”

Peterson was one of about 400 volunteers – including 60 University veterinary medicine students – who are removing deer heads and lymph nodes to test for chronic wasting disease.

Although no deer in Minnesota have tested positive for the disease, the Department of Natural Resources is testing the heads and lymph nodes of more than 13,000 deer statewide in an effort to assure there are no human health risks from deer meat.

At the 132 sampling stations in Minnesota, volunteers approached deer hunters and asked them to donate the heads for testing.

Department of Natural Resources big game coordinator Lou Cornicelli said there is no known human effect from chronic wasting disease, but it is fatal to deer, elk, moose and caribou.

Chronic wasting disease causes malformations in proteins, which lead to severe weight loss and death. It is spread by saliva and fecal contact between animals.

The Department of Natural Resources began statewide testing two years ago when an elk was diagnosed with the disease.

“We are actively trying to find it, but the desire is to know that we don’t have it,” Cornicelli said.

He added that despite symptoms including drooping ears, weight loss, salivating and chattering teeth, the only sure way to detect the disease is by studying lymph node or brain samples. There is no way to test live animals.

Cornicelli said the friendly reception of hunters who were glad to donate deer heads for testing pleasantly surprised him.

“Hunters have been very cooperative and eager to help because they recognize the importance,” he said.

A learning opportunity

University veterinary medicine student Jennifer Wicklund said her volunteer experience taught her more about public health than a textbook ever could. Even after exhausting 12-hour days extracting deer remains, she said, the benefits are tremendous.

“It reinforced the team effort that has to take place in this kind of situation,” Wicklund said. “It takes a lot of volunteers and so many different government agencies to make this go.”

Undergraduate fisheries and wildlife conservation and biology student Megan Kreye also helped test deer and said the hands-on experience was invigorating.

“It’s so much better than doing chemistry in my dorm room,” Kreye said.

The University Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory is the only lab in the state accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform chronic wasting disease testing. It is responsible for every sample in the state, and director of veterinary diagnostics James Collins said he expects to test more than 13,000 pairs of lymph nodes over the next three months.

Collins said the University is able to test the high volume of

samples because of a new automated test. The test – called the ELISA test – returns results in one day and uses a machine to process results. Previously, the lab used a manual testing method that took five days to return results.

Collins said the quick processing will make sure hunters feel safe eating deer meat and will protect rural economies that thrive on deer-hunting dollars.

“We want to make sure that people in Minnesota feel comfortable to keep hunting,” Collins said. “People are erring on the side of being cautious, and there is a lot of emotion involved with human health risks.”

The Department of Natural Resources will post test results on its Web site, and hunters will be notified immediately if their deer tests positive for the disease.

If a positive test is found, Collins said, “It will be a very big deal and it will be all over the news media.”

First-year veterinary medicine and public health student Heather Swan said the testing not only benefits her education but also helps the entire state.

“It’s good that people become educated,” Swan said. “For me, it’s a great field experience in public health education.”

After the hunt

On the first night of the season, by the light of a halogen lamp, 90-year-old hunter Henry Berry patiently watched the volunteers remove the head from his eight-point buck.

“The meat is good, but I don’t need the rack for anything,” Berry said.

Hunters who donate deer parts for testing not only get the test results for free but are also entered in a drawing to win hunting rifles.

However, many hunters who pride themselves on their catch are reluctant to sacrifice parts for testing.

“We’re going to have him mounted,” Dave Boeltz said as he admired his deer. “It’s not the biggest I’ve ever gotten but I’m going to have him mounted.”

Big bucks for tourism

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, more than 500,000 hunters harvest about 200,000 deer each year. In 2001, the most recent survey year, deer hunting retail sales also generated more than $665 million for the state.

Curt Johnson, outdoor media relations director for the Office of Tourism, said deer hunting ranks second to fishing in state tourist attractions.

Johnson said chronic wasting disease could hurt the state economy if hunters were deterred from hunting deer because of the disease. But more so, Minnesotans would miss the hunting season culture, he said.

“Deer hunting is a tradition and a heritage,” Johnson said. “Tradition would be interrupted if deer hunting was held off because of disease.”

Ken Bahr, owner of Voyageur Sportsman’s Paradise in International Falls, Minn., – a resort that offers hunting services – said he

never has vacancies this time of year. But he said media coverage of the chronic wasting disease case two years ago caused a lull in business. This year, Bahr said, a higher deer population in the area caused an increase in business.

“We’re busier this year than we’ve been before,” Bahr said.

He added that business is increasing in the International Falls area, where gas stations, grocery stores and hunting shops flourish.