Stéphane McLachlan, associate professor, environment and geography, is leading a first-of-its-kind study into how people are affected by chronic wasting disease (CWD), a highly-contagious, environmentally-transmitted prion disease found in wild animals, particularly moose, deer and elk in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Prion diseases are fatal and infectious diseases in humans and animals associated with a “sponge-like” degeneration of brain tissue. The best known example of the disease is BSE, which can spread from animals to humans. CWD has not been shown to transmit from animals to humans. However, the World Health Organization recommends that no one knowingly consume any food containing CWD.
“Regardless, CWD has serious socioeconomic implications for hunters, for those in the tourism and nature industries, and especially for Aboriginal communities,” said McLachlan.
This multidisciplinary project involves social scientists, wildlife biologists, and veterinarians from the Universities of Manitoba and Calgary, and will work in close partnership with Aboriginal communities. The team will study the biological, socioeconomic, and cultural implications of CWD. It will also address communication gaps among communities, experts, and other stakeholders that may have significant implications for human and environmental health.
McLachlan says the impetus for the research project came out of a decade-long relationship with Aboriginal communities in central Alberta and their concerns about wildlife health. “It’s key to have the Aboriginal communities centrally involved in the process. We all want a better understanding of what is happening and the implications for the communities as well as for other stakeholders. Yet, it is also important that these communities aren’t alienated from their livelihoods by any risks. Part of that approach is coming up with proactive ways of addressing the issues.”
The long term trust-based relationship that exists between McLachlan and his team and the Aboriginal communities has snowballed from one community to now include upwards of twelve communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“In a holistic sense, the research is focused on examining why and how this decline in moose and deer health is happening, the implications for the communities, and how they are adapting,” said McLachlan. “The role that CWD plays in this larger decline will be explored in this study, which is beginning and ending with the community interests.”
One novel approach on the project involves the use of participatory video. Community members will voice their concerns and issues, and this footage will be compiled along with photos that Aboriginal youth in the communities will be providing. The youth will be hired as part of the research project to document hunters in their daily life. It is hoped that involving youth in the community will help affirm the positive relationships with the environments and traditions that already are in place.
An important aspect of this research is the inclusive and community-driven approach it takes to doing environmental research. The methods and approaches taken represent a case study for community involvement around wildlife health that can be applied around the world.
The $400,000 research project is funded by PrioNet Canada, one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence, which works to develop strategies to solve the food, health safety, and socioeconomic problems associated with prion diseases. The project also has an additional $133,000 funding from the Alberta Prion Research Institute, established in 2005 to support research on prion and other protein misfolding diseases.