Chronic Wasting Disease: Are Humans At Risk?

Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD has been detected in a number of states including Ohio, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, according to news reports. Here is what you should know.

What kind of disease is it?

CWD is a nervous system disease which affects cervids including the likes of deer, elk, and moose. The highly contagious disease is believed to be caused by proteins known as prions, which can be spread through the means of urine, feces, saliva, and blood.

Once an animal is infected, it may exhibit the following symptoms — lowering of the head, problems in movement, prolonged loss of weight, nervousness, tremors, and other kinds of abnormal behavior. The disease is always fatal and has no available cure as of today.

When was it first identified?

Back in 1967, the first case of CWD was found in captive deer held in wildlife facilities at Colorado. Over the past two decades or so, the disease has been found it at least 23 states, mostly concentrated in the western regions.

While it has slowly spread among animals in the United States and Canada, the disease has also been detected in South Korea and Norway. While occurrence in South Korea is attributed to imported cases, Norway has found reindeer, moose, and red deer to have been infected.

Can it infect human beings?

It remains largely unknown whether CWD can make the jump from animals to human beings. Though there have been no documented human cases, more research and surveillance is needed to cross it off the list of potential dangers. 

"All I can say is that currently I don’t know of any evidence of transmission of CWD to people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future, or indeed has already happened but we can’t detect it," Kurt Giles, a prion disease expert, stated in 2017.

What has the research shown?

Scientists have tried to conduct experiments and see if CWD can spread to macaques i.e. primate species which are genetically similar to human beings. For the most, studies have yielded mixed results.

In one study, which started in 2009 and was presented in 2017, primates contracted the disease after they were fed muscle tissue and brain tissue of CWD-infected deer and elk. However, another investigation led by scientists of the National Institutes of Health could not find evidence of transmission.

Should humans take precautions?

"These experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD," states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency advises people to avoid hunting cervids that are behaving abnormally and to avoid contact with those found dead. When handling their meat, ensure the use of gloves and limit contact with brain and spinal cord tissues in particular. You may also look into guidelines in your state to find out more about testing animals for CWD.