Where It All Began

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Since the late 1960s, Chronic Wasting Disease has been observed in deer in some form or other. In the '70s, CWD was described more completely, though diagnosed only in a northeastern Colorado herd of captive deer. Just a few years later, in 1981, CWD was first diagnosed in a herd of wild elk and had spread to Wyoming.

The behavior of infected deer was observed to be erratic, likely due to damage to the brain and nervous system. Soon, the deer would begin to noticeably lose weight before seeking isolation from the rest of the herd. Deer confirmed to be infected were found frothing at the mouth and grinding teeth—this increase in oral fluid and function likely led to the spread of the disease. Shared water sources were also a likely culprit at the root of CWD's spread.

By the early 2000s, it was clear that the disease had spread far beyond predictions, both geographically and in speciation. Half a dozen state wildlife departments reported the disease in various cervid breeds. More intensive study ensued into the nature of the disease. The cause of CWD was found to be a prion, or an abnormal form of a protein found in the central nervous system. As more of the animal's proteins broke down, more bodily functions and behaviors began to act differently.

Despite a 2013 report citing the lack of evidence of humans contracting the disease, rumors of humans affected circulated in certain circles. The scientific community generally brushed these off as urban legends, despite the apparent veracity of the claims.

By 2016 it had been determined that it was theoretically possible for CWD to be transmitted to other mammals, though this had only been proven feasible in labs. Transmission occurred only under certain circumstances and with the help of modern laboratories. Scientists postulated, therefore, that transmission was improbable between different mammalian specimens in the wild.

In 2016 a full 23 states in the U.S. and 2 Canadian provinces reported cases of CWD in deer populations. The infection was growing at a breakneck pace.

The deer hunting season in 2017 was launched with a warning to hunters about Chronic Wasting Disease—what to look for, avoid, how to harvest, etc. Just a few weeks later, a man named Thomas Watts changed everything.

Thomas Watts was a hunter from Colorado. He was a family man and a loyal friend. He was a heavily involved deacon in his church and active in his community. That community was shocked when his wife was hospitalized from multiple blunt force traumas and his toddler son had multiple broken bones. Thomas was the only suspect and two days later admitted to beating both his wife and child but didn't know why he had done it. News outlets around the world played the interview every chance they could, complete with commentaries and explanations from experts in all fields. Medical professionals were quick to note symptoms similar to late-stage Parkinson's in Thomas's demeanor: uncontrollable muscle movements, shaking, inability to remain still, and poor control over his voice. In short, the symptoms weren't indicative of a man who had accurately made a kill-shot on a deer just weeks prior.

When more known hunters were convicted on counts of domestic disturbances, assault, and battery, investigations were conducted into the commonalities of the cases. Deer meat was examined and the CWD prions were found viable in almost all of the remaining kills. The CDC issued warning to all hunters to avoid eating deer meat until they could look at the problem with a closer eye, but the damage was done. CWD had found its way into human biology.

Since the disease had an incubation period and was transmissible through bodily fluids, it was impossible to know who could be infected and who wasn't. Once the symptoms began to show, things escalated quickly. By January of 2018, reports were well into the thousands in more than half a dozen states. Reports included erratic and unpredictable behavior, excessive violence, and in some cases, cannibalism.

The first local reports made Oklahoma headlines on February 1st, joining Colorado, Texas, Alabama, Louisianna, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, and Arkansas. Naturally, widespread panic threatened to add insult to the proverbial injury, as some citizens began to haphazardly flee while others bore arms in the name of preparedness to fight this new evil. Civil unrest was high and the disease was spreading exponentially.

In March, the first whispers of "quarantine" were heard around the southern states, as Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina joined the ranks of the afflicted states and by April, state borders began to close as mandated by federal law. The National Guards were mobilized to police the borders and guard against attempts to flee the state and potentially spread the disease. The summer months would bring more violence and uncertainty as hotspots for CWD were summarily firebombed in a desperate attempt to cut the disease off.

Many take to the roads on foot in search of safety, refuge, and family. Small towns get smaller, people get less trusting. If anyone could be infected, trust no one.


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