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Are Deer Hunters at Risk for Wasting Disease?

Are Deer Hunters at Risk for Chronic Wasting Disease?

Avoid shooting a deer that appears sick.

Wear latex gloves when field-dressing.

Avoid cutting through bones or the spinal column.

Do not use household knives or utensils.

Never eat a deer’s brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen or lymph nodes.

That's the advice hunting officials have been giving hunters since the 2002 US outbreak of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

CWD is a fatal neurological disorder similar to mad cow disease that afflicts deer and elk and is not proven to spread to humans.

But after two articles in Science this year, they might want to add "get your affairs in order." Because eating and handling venison have never looked so risky.

Deer hunting was just getting back to normal in the last two years in a kind of don't ask/don't tell dance of denial.

Hunting states like Colorado and Wisconsin were curtailing their original CWD eradication programs and conceding defeat [1,2] but people weren't afraid to eat or butcher deer anymore. Food pantries were accepting venison again--giving some recipients a warning flier--and presumably not asking why the meat was okay for the poor and not the donor.

And even though a 2001 Archives of Neurology article--"Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in unusually young patients who consumed venison" [3]--and 2003 Centers for Disease Control report--"Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illnesses in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts" [4]--raised suspicions about venison/human illness connections, they were not definitive.

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Then an article in the January 26 issue of Science [5] reported that prions, the misfolded proteins that spread CWD, were not just found in a deer's brain, spine and lymph nodes but in the muscle and flesh that people eat. And that "humans consuming or handling meat from CWD-infected deer are at risk to prion exposure." Prions can't be neutralized by cooking, heating, irradiation or chemicals and are virtually indestructible, contributing to the difficulty in containing prion outbreaks.

Before Departments of Natural Resources (DNRs) had time to respond, another article appeared in the October 6 Science [6 ]which said CWD prions were present in the saliva and blood of infected deer and that casual contact could spread the disease.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, where some of the research was conducted, people even worried about the safety of their drinking water which was drawn from a raw water treatment plant near the CWD infected animals' pens [7] after the report.

Renewed DNR fears present an economic dilemma for DNRs some of which have not even won back the deer hunters who dropped out in 2002. Antler-intent hunters aren't eager to buy licenses to shoot does or yearlings before they can shoot a buck, as some eradication programs require. Nor do they want to shoot or handle CWD-infected deer. Free testing programs exist for deer caught in known CWD zones for hunters willing to wait to consume their venison. But removing a deer's head for testing also exposes a hunter to blood and prion containing tissues. And what about the sick deer in areas thought to be safe?

"Just think of all the CWD gut piles in the woods where other animals can eat it and the blood can be filtered through the soil and enter the ground water," cautions Jon C. McCabe of Watertown, Wisconsin in the Capital Times as gun deer season opened. [8]

"If the hunter has the deer processed, does that processor sterilize its equipment after each deer is cut up so cross contamination does not occur? If the hunter cuts up his/her own deer, he or she should wear surgical gloves and not have any open cuts or sores on their hands."

Colorado hunter Al Samuelson, whose buck was recently found to be CWD positive, now worries about his hunting clothes and having put his blood-soaked hands on his truck's steering wheel and door handles. Even his wife and washing machine were exposed, he says. [9]

But DNR budgets are largely driven by hunting fees. Some accuse states of deliberately keeping mum about CWD risks to keep dollars flowing in.

As deer hunters go afield this season they are more worried about where deer are hiding than prions. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, prion disease in humans, has a distinctively long incubation period and the infection source is often never known.

But food pantries in Lincoln, Nebraska are starting to refuse venison donations from the scores of hunters who can't or won't eat what they kill.[10] Their disclaimer to Don't ask/ Don't tell? Don't eat.

1 "State stops culling herds of deer, elk" Rocky Mountain News, March 29, 2006

2 "Deer hunting rules may change in CWD zone" AP, June 29, 2006

3 Oct;58(10):1673-8

4 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)

Feb 21, 2003 / 52(07);125-127

5 "Prions in Skeletal Muscles of Deer with Chronic Wasting Disease"

6 "Infectious Prions in the Saliva and Blood of Deer with Chronic Wasting Disease"

7 "CSU pinpoints spread of CWD Research shows blood, saliva can transmit disease"

The Fort Collins Coloradoan, Oct 6 2006

8 Capital Times Nov 18, 2006

9 North Forty News & Fossil Creek Current Nov 2 2006

10 Beatrice Daily Sun Nov 15, 2006


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