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Experts gather to study chronic wasting disease crossover

By Randy Thoms Mar 14, 2024 | 6:16 PM

Infectious disease researchers say deer hunters are on the front lines of what could be a serious threat to public health: chronic wasting disease.

KFF Health News reports that animal disease scientists are alarmed about the rapid spread of the disease in deer.

The disease has been identified in animals in several parts of Minnesota but not yet detected in Ontario.

Recent research shows the barrier to a spillover into humans is less formidable than previously thought, and that the prions causing the disease may be evolving to become more able to infect humans.

That has led to a new initiative involving 68 global experts coming together to study transmission.

The University of Minnesota’s Michael Osterholm says while this is still just a potential, they don’t want to be caught off guard.

“We have to understand that if we do have a spillover, we’re gonna be way at the end of the curve, you might say, in terms of what we could do about it,” says Osterholm.

He notes a similar health threat, mad cow disease, took a decade to spread through animals before it started showing up in humans who had consumed the meat.

First discovered in 1967, chronic wasting disease has been found in animals in at least 32 states and five provinces.

The disease has not been detected in deer in Ontario.

Difficult to eradicate, it causes brain deterioration before the infected animal dies.

Researchers estimate between seven and 15 thousand infected animals are unknowingly consumed by people annually.

Osterholm says testing of wild game for chronic wasting disease is available but is cumbersome and not widely used.

“We know of people who actually have tested their animals – it’s come up positive for prions – and they still consume it because they say, ‘We’ve been doing this for years, and no one’s gotten sick yet.”

Experts are now pursuing a rapid test as part of broader prevention efforts.

(With files from Jim Robbins at KFF Health News and Mike Moen of Minnesota News Connection)