As deer season recently ended for Texans, and the prize of the hunt is newly processed venison, let us give you some “food for thought”. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been a part of the hunting world for quite some time. It has been affecting the deer and elk population, since its discovery in the 1960’s. Chronic wasting syndrome has been known to be found among deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming, however, there has been newly-detected infected deer and elk in other parts of the United States. According to the CDC there are now 24 states with confirmed CWD in free-ranging deer, elk, and moose.
What is Chronic wasting syndrome? CWD is a fatal neurodegenerative prion disease that is transmissible. In other words, CWD affects the brain with misfolded proteins known as prions. Dr. Ariel Zabat works internationally for medical missions. He compares CWD to another disease we are familiar with, “it’s like Mad Cow disease, a prion disease…A prion does not have DNA and yet it reproduces, it has made the definition of “Life” quite, well, ‘shady’”. The rapid spread of this disease could be due to the natural migration of these animals and raises some real concerns for the possibilities of human exposure.
The CDC is now warning hunters to watch out for odd behaviors and signs of physical deterioration in often hunted deer and elk. Signs and symptoms resemble that of a zombie. Animals with the misfortune of contracting this disease develop “zombie-like” symptoms, prior to their imminent death, such as: drastic weight loss, stumbling and lack of coordination, drooling, listlessness, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, lack of fear of people, and aggression (CDC). This gives an all too realism to the fictional roles of “zombie hunters”.
So, how is it transmitted? The natural spread of this disease has been questioned by scientists for years, even though there is strong suggestion of horizontal transmission. However, there has been some evidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy to humans in the past via foodborne transmission. With the popularity of venison consumption after a successful hunt, and CWD epidemic it is resulting in increased human exposure in the United States. Although, there aren’t any confirmed CWD cases in humans, there is some indication that a type of animal prion disease is not protected by a species barrier. An infected animal’s bodily fluids can cause transmission; therefore, hunters should avoid consuming the suspected infected animal. Hunters are also strongly advised to test their meat prior to consumption. Dr. Zabat admits that he will be avoiding antelope and deer meat, for some time. So, how’s that for some “food for thought”?