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Nor is Greger persuaded by the oft-invoked species-barrier claim. The National Institutes of Health-funded study most often cited to bolster that argument is far from clear-cut, he contends. In the study, scientists exposed CWD prion proteins--the infectious agent believed to cause CWD--to normal human prion proteins. The result: a very weak transmission rate.
"Yes, it's true that the transmission rate is very low," Greger concedes. And whether low transmission in a test-tube setting would translate into any real-world risks remains an open question. But, Greger notes, the study found that the CWD transmission rate, while low, is comparable to the transmission rate of mad cow disease. "Nobody disputes that mad cow disease can infect human beings," he says. "The evidence is unassailable."
Prion-based afflictions like CWD, mad cow, and their human equivalents (such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob) can take years or sometimes decades to produce symptoms. Because of that, Greger says, it is difficult to get a handle on the extent of infection in any given population. While the death toll of mad cow disease on humans in the U.K. is still relatively small, there is scant consensus on what the numbers will look like in 15 years. One recent mathematical model, Greger notes, calculated a worst-case scenario at 136,000 human deaths from infected beef.
Although there is uncertainty surrounding the human health consequences of mad cow disease, there is even less known about CWD, says Greger. "We don't even know how it is transmitted deer to deer. And if scientists are going to be truly honest, they would answer every question with, 'We don't know.' Under the precautionary principle, we should be telling hunters, 'Wait a second, this could be a public health hazard.'"
Among the majority of Minnesota hunters and venison eaters, that message has yet to take hold. A recent St. Paul Pioneer Press/Minnesota Public Radio poll found that about a quarter of Minnesota deer hunters say they will skip this year's hunt. Citing current deer permit sales that are on pace with past trends, however, the DNR and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association are skeptical of those numbers.
Larry Bolig, co-host of the syndicated outdoors radio show "Bear Facts and Fish Tales," says he finds the CWD debate overblown. And so, he says, do most of his hunting buddies and listeners. "I have yet to be convinced that there is anything to worry about, and I have yet to find a guy who is not going to hunt this year because of CWD," Bolig says. The concerns of non-hunters, he adds, are another story.
"My own wife said to me, 'You're not bringing home any deer meat this year,'" Bolig chuckles. "Well, the hell I'm not."