“It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Waterhole told the Minnesota legislature last week, as reported by NBC News. In light of this new development, Health spoke with Brian Appleby, MD, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University.
Infected humans don’t get BSE, but they do develop a similar (and also fatal) condition called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CD). And there are zero reported cases of a human getting sick from eating contaminated meat from corvids (members of the deer family), although studies done on monkeys have shown that chronic wasting disease can pose a risk to other animals who come into contact with meat or brain material from infected animals.
The spread of CD is also concerning because it’s occurring in wild animals, says Dr. Appleby, as opposed to BSE outbreaks that occasionally happen in domesticated cattle. Dr. Appleby’s center also studies human cases of CD, to determine whether they came from contaminated meat and are evidence of a new outbreak or if they arose spontaneously.
“Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain,” reports the CDC. Procedures and facilities vary by region, but several states have set up free testing centers, according to NBC News.
The CDC also recommends avoiding deer or elk that look sick, act strangely, or are found dead. When field dressing a deer, hunters should wear latex or rubber gloves, avoid using household knives or kitchen utensils, and minimize how much they handle the animal’s organs, particularly the brain and spinal cord tissue.
And for people who have their deer or elk commercially processed, the CDC recommends asking the facility to avoid mixing meat from multiple animals. “Obviously we don’t think that it’s a good thing for people to eat any kind of meat that could be contaminated with a prion disease,” he says.
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As of January 2018, at least 22 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces have reported cases of CD, also referred to as the “zombie deer disease.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a map of the states and counties where cases have been reported.
Oh, and CD has occurred in reindeer and moose in Norway as well, just in case that country happens to be on your mind. Like “mad cow disease”, CD is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (Uses).
Moose, elk, and mule deer are other species that have been infected with CD, (Photo: Shutterstock) Avoid deer that are like zombies in any way (e.g., acting abnormally or dead) and do not handle or eat their meat.
Don't eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, or lymph nodes of deer. Do not put any equipment used to handle or cut raw deer meat in your mouth at any time.
Don't touch, eat, juggle, or handle deer poop or urine Contact your local health or wildlife department if you see deer behaving strangely (dead for no clear reason counts as behaving strangely) As reported by the Detroit Free Press, there have also been calls for more aggressive CD control measures among the deer population such as enhanced surveillance and more aggressive communication of the risks to people who handle deer like hunters.
I am a writer, journalist, professor, systems modeler, computational and digital health expert, avocado-eater, and entrepreneur, not always in that order. … Read More am a writer, journalist, professor, systems modeler, computational and digital health expert, avocado-eater, and entrepreneur, not always in that order.
Currently, I am a Professor of Health Policy and Management at the City University of New York (PUNY) School of Public Health, Executive Director of PRIOR (@PHICORteam), Professor By Courtesy at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, and founder and CEO of Symbolic. My previous positions include serving as Executive Director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOP) at Johns Hopkins University, Associate Professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Associate Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Manager at Quin tiles Transnational, working in biotechnology equity research at Montgomery Securities, and co-founding a biotechnology/bioinformatics company.
My work has included developing computational approaches, models, and tools to help health and healthcare decision makers in all continents (except for Antarctica) and has been supported by a wide variety of sponsors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the NIH, AHQ, CDC, UNICEF, USAID and the Global Fund. The first thing to know about Chronic Wasting Disease is that it’s never been found in humans since first being discovered in Colorado in the 1960s.
Matt Dundee, project coordinator for the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to studying the effects and extent of the disease, explained that CD was something most people don’t understand. Dundee explained that unlike a virus or a bacterium, there’s nothing “alive” passing on the prion disease.
Contamination is thought to happen through contact with body fluids and tissue or through exposure to CD in the environment, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Like other prion diseases, common symptoms include drastic weight loss (hence the 'wasting'), stumbling, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, lack of fear of people and aggression, the CDC said.
Dundee said it is extremely rare to see deer display CD symptoms in the wild. Pruitt didn’t agree with the classification of CD as a “zombie” disease and instead said these animals were extremely sick.
***Dundee brought up a case from New York state where the parks department there found a deer with CD a few years ago and then instituted aggressive hunting in the geographical area around the deer. “Perhaps if you catch it extremely early and remove all animals on the landscape ,” he said.
Pruitt said CPU has not considered removing all the wildlife from Colorado's landscape at any point. “We’ve heard hunters say they don’t care and say it’s healthier than grocery meat,” she explained.
“In general, the longer CD has been present in wild cervix populations,” Dundee said, “the more informed the public usually is. It’s in large part thanks to the efforts of hunters that researchers and wildlife staff can manage the disease at all, Dundee said.
Without hunters, researchers wouldn’t have the number of samples needed to find and document the disease’s spread and keep its prevalence low. According to both Pruitt and Dundee, the nearly erroneous worry that the disease could spread to humans if we eat enough infected meat comes from a study don’t on the macaques monkey by German and Canadian researchers.
“’Could spread to humans’ is probably a little more of a fearful than what research is currently showing,” Pruitt said but quickly added, “It’s not something to take lightly.” According to the CDC, a study began in 2009 aimed to find out if the disease could jump to macaques monkeys.
In 2017, at a conference, the researchers showed CD had been transmitted to monkeys who’d eaten infected meat from deer and elk. This contradicted an earlier study that hadn’t shown successful transmission to macaques.
“Over the past 30 to 40 years, the human variant of prion disease has actually gone down in those areas,” Dundee explained. There are three bills moving through Congress now that would give more research dollars to CD, Dundee said.
I found a story with the old headline intact from January 2018: Could Colorado’s Zombie Deer Disease Ever Spread To People?” National Public Radio then ran with it and now, over the course of a little over a year, you’ve got dozens of headlines with the word. In the meantime, remember deer aren’t turning into zombies, the odds of eating infected meat are low (especially low in Colorado... although people still do), and you'll likely never know if you just ran into an infected deer.
Just like Pruitt and Dundee have said: it’s important for people to be aware that there’s a disease out there that can’t be eradicated and if left unchecked could ravage the cervix population wherever it finds a foothold. And while the fear that plagues some articles across the net that the terrible disease could jump to humans, Dundee and the others don't see that happening any time soon.