People who eat deer meat could be at risk of contracting a deadly infectious disease that is spreading across the animals’ US populations, experts have warned.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) –dubbed “zombie” deer disease – has infected deer, elk and moose across 24 American states and two Canadian provinces.
The disease attacks tissues including the brain and spinal cord, causing dramatic weight loss, loss of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination and intense aggression before the animal dies.
Up to 15,000 infected animals are eaten each year, a number that could rise by 20 per cent annually, according to Michael Osterholm, an expert in infectious disease from the University of Minnesota.
“It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” he said.\
“It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events,” he told state lawmakers, USA Today reported.
Mr Osterholm compared the situation to “mad cow” disease in Britain, when 177 people died in the UK between 1986 and 2014.
A red deer farm near Ontario in Canada has had 11 confirmed cases.
CWD was seen in captive deer as far back as the late 1960s but was first spotted in the wild about 40 years ago.
There have been no documented cases so far of humans contracting it, but recent research shows it can be transmitted to other animals, including primates, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Eating infected deer meat would be the most likely way for people to catch it, the centres say, but there are no certainties.
Mr Osterholm said: “It’s like a throw at the genetic roulette table.
“If you put this into a meat processing plant … this is kind of a worst-case nightmare.”
Chronic wasting disease belongs to the same family of diseases – known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies – as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).