National Post (National Edition)

Thrust to the heart



Here's how it might happen: One day, a single deer migrates farther north in search of good, green grazing ground than it or its fellows ever have before.

Outwardly, this deer appears healthy. It does all the things deer usually do. It feeds on grasses, shoots and leaves; it drinks water from cool streams; it sleeps in soft, mossy places and uses its extra large, sensitive ears — each of which is capable of moving independen­tly of the other — to listen for predators. If encountere­d in the wild, nothing about its behaviour or appearance would indicate anything unusual about it. If harvested by a hunter, nothing about its meat would give them pause. At this stage of infection, only laboratory analysis would be able to detect the highly-infectious pathogen lurking within the animal.

Then, one day — around two years after its own initial infection — the deer begins to act oddly. It loses interest in eating, rapidly losing weight. The stricken animal stumbles and drools, acquiring a hunched, unco-ordinated posture. It becomes depressed, has difficulty swallowing, and may lose its fear of humans and other predators, and develop pneumonia or paralysis. It is impossible to say how an animal feels, but it looks miserable.

This stage, says Dr. Margo Pybus, wildlife disease specialist with the Alberta government's fish and wildlife division, occurs around the last month of the infected animal's life. Invariably, it dies — the fatality rate for this pathogen is 100 per cent.

This now-deceased hypothetic­al animal was infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a bizarre and highly communicab­le degenerati­ve illness spreading through deer population­s in Canada's west. Of greatest concern for Northern communitie­s is its potential to infect caribou, as the disease is moving not only east and west, but north, where it threatens to overlap with the southern ranges of the ungulate, or hoofed mammals, a cultural touchstone and a dietary staple of many Northern First Nations.

First detected in deer at a research facility in the late 1960s and then in wild population­s in Colorado in 1981, CWD has since been found in 26 American states and is considered endemic in eight. In Canada, it was first detected in Saskatchew­an in 1996, and has since spread throughout that province and spilled over into Alberta, which confirmed its first case in December 2005 in a wild deer harvested near the Saskatchew­an border. From there, the disease has continued to spread in an ever-widening radius, with Manitoba reporting its first confirmed case of the illness in November 2021.

It's extremely important to understand that the disease, to date, has not been found in Northern cervid, or deer, population­s in Canada — the animal imagined here is meant simply to show how CWD spreads with a slow but cascading effect, and how it could possibly enter into northern ranges. The threat, however, is not mere speculatio­n — CWD is currently infecting wild caribou in Norway, where it was first detected in 2016.

CWD belongs to an unusual class of pathogens called prions, which are neither viruses nor bacteria, but misfolded proteins, the same family of infectious agents that cause Bovine Spongiform Encephalit­is (BSE), better known as “mad cow disease.” Unlike BSE, however, CWD is spread through animal-to-animal contact, including saliva and urine — more troublingl­y, the pathogen is extremely resilient and remains active in the environmen­t, accumulati­ng in soil, where it can be picked up by another browsing deer of any species long after the original host has gone.

Moreover, in Canada, climate change has been altering patterns in deer migration patterns; in Yukon, for example, mule deer have been moving from Northern British Columbia into Southern Yukon for some time, and are considered among the “most susceptibl­e species” to CWD, says Michelle Thompson, a veterinari­an with Yukon's Animal Health Unit.

“The mechanism of spread to geographic­ally isolated areas is not completely understood with CWD. One of the challenges that we face with a lot of wildlife disease surveillan­ce is the movement of wildlife ... We're often surprised by how far and wide animal ranges are,” she says.

If you ask Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin, it's not a matter of if CWD makes it into caribou population­s, but when.

Centred in Old Crow, a fly-in only community in the Yukon's Far North, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation are part of the wider Gwich'in nation, one people spread out across the Northwest Territorie­s, Yukon and Alaska. The Gwich'in people have not only relied on caribou — specifical­ly, the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a collective of barrenland­s caribou that have the longest land mammal migration in the world — for thousands of years, but hold their relationsh­ip to them to be sacred, and think of the caribou as “family,” says Tizya-Tramm.

“When our people came to these lands (thousands of years ago), we came across vadzaih (caribou) and we followed them throughout the land. That's how our brother (the caribou) taught us to navigate these lands,” says Tizya-Tramm.

“We followed our brother to Gwandaii Goodlit (the Sacred Place Where Life Begins) and it is said that it is there that the Gwich'in took half of our heart and traded it with the caribou … We realized that we needed one another to survive in the North and by trading half our heart we would always know where the other was, and be there to look after each other.”

“What (unchecked CWD spread) means to our people is that we are quite literally looking at the loss of half our beating hearts, half of who we are as a people, and the loss of our most intimate family member as Gwich'in people. We hold our brother the caribou in the highest esteem and respect and now our family member is looking at a terminal illness that is going to reach our lands in just a matter of time, as there's no stopping disease.”

To date, CWD hasn't been found to infect humans, although the federal government recommends people not consume meat that has tested positive for CWD. With that said, there are special concerns when it comes to Northern communitie­s, says Dr. Valerie Sim of the University of Alberta, in part because they tend to have lower access to health care (and therefore would be less likely to have disease detected if it did develop) and in part because of their higher risk of exposure, particular­ly in regards to a traditiona­l diet.

“Well, how concerned should we be? I think everybody should have awareness of this disease," Sim says. "I don't believe in blocking informatio­n just to … prevent (people) from being afraid. At the same time, we can't sensationa­lize it, such that it drives fear and terror into everyone, because that also has significan­t health consequenc­es.”

What is important to think about, she says, is that the more times a zoonotic disease — or one that is transmitte­d between species, from animals to humans — comes in contact with a human, the more chance there is of a spillover.

During the BSE outbreak, the disease was first identified in cattle in the 1980s, with human cases — in humans, BSE presents as the Alzheimer's-like variant Creutzfeld­t-Jakob disease (vCJD) — stemming from consumptio­n of infected meat first popping up in the 1990s. With BSE, the disease entered a mass food chain production system, with an estimated 2 million infected animals, making it unlikely that every single person who ate contaminat­ed meat got sick. To date, there have been only 232 identified cases of vCJD (although, unfortunat­ely, all cases have been fatal).

This phenomena is particular­ly important to consider when you're thinking about Northern communitie­s, especially Indigenous ones, because they may be consuming more game meat, such as caribou or moose, as part of a traditiona­l diet than southern population­s.

“While there's a lot that we don't yet know (about CWD), there's enough (informatio­n) to be concerned,” says Sim, adding that she thinks there needs to be an “open dialogue” between scientists and Northern communitie­s, such as a yearly update targeted specifical­ly to the Elders and leaders in those communitie­s.

As for Tizya-Tramm, he says he realizes some people may think he is being overly reactionar­y regarding CWD's threat to caribou, but notes that those people don't have an infant child who is “teething on a caribou bone,” as he and his wife do in Old Crow.

First Nation and Inuit people need a decisive place at the table when it comes to discussion­s about management of CWD, he says, but that position can't be based solely on colonial ideas of knowledge. He adds that the spread of the illness is the result of Western Colonial relationsh­ips to the land — ones that are damaging and that people such as the Gwich'in are especially capable of mitigating, if they are listened to.

 ?? PIERRE OBENDRAUF ?? “When our people came to these lands ... we followed (the caribou) throughout the land. That's how our brother taught us to navigate these lands,” says Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.
PIERRE OBENDRAUF “When our people came to these lands ... we followed (the caribou) throughout the land. That's how our brother taught us to navigate these lands,” says Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.

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