Cory Anderson: Stalking a deer killer
As a lifelong hunter and an environmental health graduate student concentrating in infectious diseases, Cory Anderson harbors a passion both personal and professional when it comes to chronic wasting disease, or CWD.
“Everyone hunts,” says Anderson of his hometown of Elroy, Wisconsin. “The county right below mine is a hotspot for CWD. It was found in the early 2000s.”
So far, CWD has not been observed to jump from a cervid to a person. But because the potential is there, and CWD remains incurable and spreads easily, Anderson has devoted himself to keeping the disease at bay and out of the human population.
A PhD student of Regents Professor Michael Osterholm—School of Public Health faculty member and director of the U of M Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP)—Anderson was studying CWD in early 2020 when he was thrust into the COVID-19 information blizzard, sorting the good from the questionable to help his famous adviser chart the pandemic’s course. And that work continues.
“I never would have envisioned I’d work for Mike during his probably biggest public health challenge,” Anderson muses. “It’s been a front row seat.”
With CWD as with COVID-19, Anderson plays a role central to One Health efforts: ensuring that people involved in diverse aspects of a health issue have a common, reliable data set. Only this time, the ambiguity of CWD’s potential effects on humans adds a new dimension.
Whether in the hunting community or with agencies that manage the disease, Anderson says it can sometimes be challenging to get people to talk about the possibility of transmission to humans. But he and Osterholm want people to make informed choices.
“That was the inspiration for diving into the CDC recommendations,” Anderson explains. Also, “People who had pushed back saw it as being against hunting. [But] the worst thing for hunting is to pretend that CWD and its potential to transmit to other species like humans isn't a possibility, only to find out the hard way."
Anderson says that expanded access to convenient, accurate, and timely CWD testing is critical. He also addresses another important issue in his PhD research: the safe disposal of cervid carcasses.
He emphasizes to hunters, taxidermists, and meat processors that carcasses must be safely disposed of, and landfills are one of the best options. But some landfill owners may reject cervid carcasses, and some wastewater facilities reject water leached from landfills that take cervids.
To clear this hurdle, Anderson works with officials from wildlife and environmental agencies, agencies overseeing captive cervids, and operators of landfills and wastewater treatment plants to reconcile the various policies and practices so that safe disposal of cervid carcasses can become the norm.
"If CWD did transmit [to humans], they’d stop hunting. [But many people don’t realize that] hunting licenses support conservation activities for bees, songbirds, and other species.”
Anderson tells how the U.S. Geological Survey once mapped out the zip codes of nonresident hunters who had bagged a deer in one of four southwestern Wisconsin counties, where in some areas the prevalence of CWD is among the highest in the country.
"They found that hunters from 49 states had made the trip and harvested a deer," he says. "What these hunters did with the potentially infectious carcasses remains largely unknown."
With this kind of potential for CWD to spread, Anderson’s work comes none too soon.