The fatal deer condition chronic wasting disease (CWD) is rapidly spreading through the US, affecting at least 22 states. Less well known than mad cow disease, CWD is similarly a progressive, fatal transmissible "spongiform encephalopathy" or brain disease.
Public health and department of natural resources officials say there is no evidence that CWD can cross the species barrier and affect humans. But a CDC 2002 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report called "Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illnesses in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts --Wisconsin, 2002," is not reassuring. "Three unusually young patients with CJD who regularly consumed deer or elk meat" read an article about the cases in the Archives of Neurology.
Officials reassure hunters that venison is safe if the animal's brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes are avoided, but scientific articles suggest otherwise. A 2006 article in the journal Science says "prions" (the agents that spread the disease) are found in deer muscle that is eaten and that "humans consuming or handling meat from CWD-infected deer are at risk to prion exposure." Another article in the journal the same year reports prions found in the saliva and blood of CWD-infected deer and cautions that even casual contact could put people at risk.
CJD is short for Creutzfeldt--Jakob disease the human version of CWD and mad cow. Most types of CJD are not caused by eating meat from "mad cows" or deer with CWD (called variant CJD) but absolute confirmation requires a brain biopsy, usually after death. Anecdotally, families of people with CJD have cited their consumption of venison as the cause.
Over ten years ago, Wisconsin endured a kind of deer holocaust in which so many deer developed CWD, thousands of carcasses were stored in refrigerated trucks in La Crosse while their severed heads were tested for CWD. Food pantries refused the donated deer meat for obvious reasons.
Hunters and their families were afraid to eat the deer they killed because even if theirs was okay what about the other guy's at the processor's? One hunter not only worried about the blood on his steering wheel after killing a buck, he worried about his wife washing his blood stained clothes.
Now those days are coming back. CWD is spreading so quickly, some states are requiring that severed heads of deer be tested as they were in Wisconsin and they are piling up. Laws are being enacted or strengthened against intrastate transport of deer and game farms are killing hundreds of deer that might be ill.