Caution Zombie Deer with Chronic Wasting Disease

Public health officials report possible risk from contact or eating infected game meat

Local deer are infected with the always fatal Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Hunters may come face to face with stumbling, thin, unafraid animals like friends of mine did last week. On a scenic drive, they stopped along the road on the west side of Hungry Horse Reservoir to watch a thin weak whitetail doe accompanied by two lively yearlings. The doe stumbled up to the car and peered inside, pressing her nose against the window, eyes vacant, unafraid, showing classic signs of CWD.

More than half of U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and numerous countries are trying to stop disease spread in moose, and herds of deer, elk and reindeer. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks is providing free testing on all harvested animals for hunter safety and to track spread.

Animals with advanced disease are easy to identify unlike the healthy-appearing yearlings with the dying doe. Infected animals show no symptoms for more than a year yet can spread the fatal disease. Check out FWP website guidelines for submitting tissue for diagnosis before eating or handling game carcasses.

Prions are infectious proteins found in body fluids and tissue, difficult to kill, and stable in soil for years. Usual cleaning methods and cooking infected meat do not destroy prions. Per a recent Rocky Mountain Laboratory study, soaking contaminated surfaces for five minutes in 40 percent bleach solution can inactivate prions.

Although no human has been diagnosed with prion disease from eating wild game, a recent Canadian study showed monkeys died after eating infected venison. Public health officials report possible risk from contact or eating infected game meat. The CWD prion is a variant of mad cow disease that killed hundreds of Europeans in the 1990s.

Betty Kuffel, MD