Each autumn, hunters venture into forests and grasslands across North America to pursue deer, a longstanding tradition deeply ingrained in American culture. However, beyond the surface of this tradition lies a growing concern among infectious disease researchers: chronic wasting disease (CWD).
CWD, a fatal neurological condition caused by misfolded proteins called prions, currently affects members of the cervid family, including elk, deer, and moose. Recent research suggests that the barrier preventing the disease from crossing over to humans may not be as robust as previously assumed. Additionally, there are indications that the prions responsible for CWD may be evolving to better infect humans.
Responding to this potential threat, a coalition of researchers has initiated a comprehensive effort involving 68 global experts to address the challenges associated with a potential human transmission of CWD. This initiative includes enhancing public health surveillance, expanding laboratory capacity, improving diagnostics for prion diseases, and increasing surveillance of both livestock and wildlife.
Despite the consumption of tens of thousands of infected animals by humans each year, there have been no reported cases of CWD transmission to humans. However, experts remain deeply concerned about the possibility of such transmission and its potential impact on domestic animals.
Prions, the causative agents of CWD, are notoriously resilient and virtually impossible to eradicate. The disease manifests in distressing symptoms, leading to a spongy deterioration of the brain and behavior resembling that of “zombie” deer. Cooking does not destroy prions and may even concentrate them, posing a greater risk to consumers.
Efforts to combat CWD include the development of rapid testing methods to detect the disease in deer carcasses, as well as collaborations with Indigenous communities to monitor and manage its spread. Researchers are also exploring new technologies to expedite testing and mitigate the risks associated with CWD.
Despite the challenges posed by CWD, there is optimism that ongoing research efforts will yield effective solutions to combat this devastating disease.