Expert Health Articles

Deer Season Pandemic

There’s a pandemic. This one is specific to deer and, subsequently, should be of interest to deer hunters. It is called chronic wasting disease. Chronic wasting disease is similar to Mad Cow disease, as it is caused by a prion. What is a prion, you ask? While a little hard to describe, prions are essentially a misfolded protein that can cause other proteins (predominantly in the brain and nervous system) to also misfold and then create microscopic holes in the brain tissue. Mad Cow, scrapie (in sheep), chronic wasting disease in cervids (whitetail deer, elk, moose etc.) all present with similar neurologic deficits of poor coordination, wasting muscle tissue and general weakness. This is also present in a human disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). However, don’t be too worried as the rate of CJD has remained below one in one million for many years.  

Why would chronic wasting disease matter to deer hunters in our area? Deer that are positive for chronic wasting disease have been found in Wyandot, Hardin and Marion counties and are likely in eastern Hancock County. However, at this time, it is hard to determine if there can be transmission of this disease from deer to humans. It was once thought that prion diseases could be transferred from one species to another. However, there is no clear evidence, yet, that this has occurred. 

Take extra precautions when processing deer for consumption and avoid opening the brain or spinal canal if possible while field-dressing or butchering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided some basic guidance on handling deer from a chronic wasting disease endemic area. These guidelines include: do not shoot, handle or eat meat from deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely or are found dead (road-kill); wear latex or rubber gloves when field-dressing the animal or handling the meat; minimize how much you handle the organs of the animal, particularly the brain or spinal cord tissues; do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing; strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for chronic wasting disease before you eat the meat; if you have your deer or elk commercially processed, consider asking that your animal be processed individually to avoid mixing meat from multiple animals.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has set up disease surveillance for the local endemic area. Check with ODNR for further guidance.

Christian Steiner, MD
Psychiatry
Psychiatric Center of Northwest Ohio