Could Chronic Wasting Disease Spread From Deer to Humans?

According to a story from Food Safety News, an illness known as chronic wasting disease has been known to affect members of the deer family in the US since the 1970s. First found in Colorado, experts initially had little concern that the disease would spread rapidly. Many hoped that the turbulent depths of the Mississippi River would, at least, serve as a natural barrier.

Unfortunately chronic wasting disease has begun to spread faster than was originally projected. It is now found in half of all US states and has successfully made its way to the east coast. The disease is capable of infecting all members of the deer family, such as elk, caribou, and white tailed deer. Now, some scientists are wondering if chronic wasting disease can spread to humans.

A Threat to Humans?

Chronic wasting disease is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. These diseases are associated with prions. Another example is mad cow disease; the closest human equivalent is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

There have been some reports of humans affected by chronic wasting disease, but these have not been verified. Hunters are still advised to avoid consuming animals that are affected, and most do. It is ultimately lethal and is characterized by difficulties in movement, progressive weight loss, abnormal behavior, tremors, nervousness, teeth grinding, and unresponsiveness. Bucks are more likely to have the disease than does, and their tendency to travel greater distances could contribute to its spread.

Despite the fact that it is unclear if humans can get chronic wasting disease, Claudio Soto, a neurology professor from the University of Texas, says that it could be possible and that the matter should be investigated more thoroughly. In some states where the disease is present, hunters are asked to submit the head of a killed deer so that it can be tested for chronic wasting disease.

No Evidence of Human Cases so Far

Still, the percentage of sick animals relative to the total population is generally low in most areas. There also do not appear to be increases in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or other brain diseases in areas where it is more prevalent or where greater amounts of venison are eaten. 

While more study will be needed to understand the risks that chronic wasting disease poses to humans, hunters are encouraged to inform themselves about the status of the disease in the areas where they hunt, to get the deer they kill tested if necessary, and to avoid eating deer that tests positive for the illness.


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