Is CWD a risk to humans? Health officials weigh in

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EAU CLAIRE COUNTY, Wis. (WEAU) -- When it comes to Chronic Wasting Disease's risk to humans, health officials say better safe than sorry.

Wisconsin's gun deer opener is just a month away. That means thousands of hunters coming into contact with deer. To date, more than 55 Wisconsin counties have reportedly been impacted by Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD.

"Chronic Wasting Disease is a Prion Disease that is spread through the deer population," said Ryan Davis, Registered Nurse at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire. With thousands of area hunters soon looking to bag their bucks, concern about the spread of CWD remains on everyone's mind.

CWD is a neurological disease, fatal to deer. "They'll lose weight, they might do repeated walking habits, they'll drink a lot of water, they can grind their teeth, they can be drooling, they're just going to look sick," said Davis. Deer that have recently been infected may not show these signs right away so officials recommend bringing deer heads in for testing.

When it comes to CWD and human health, Davis says the main concern is health officials don't fully know how the disease can affect humans yet.

"We don't know exactly what would happen, but we're concerned that it could pass on to humans and give us that Prion disease which would be Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease which is a disease that humans get where you end up getting early stage dementia and it is a fatal disease 100 percent of the time," said Davis.

There have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people, however animal studies suggest the disease still poses a risk.

"Chronic Wasting Disease in deer is similar to the human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob but there is no proof that eating an infected CWD deer would cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's important to keep the agents of all known Prion diseases, like CWD from entering the human food chain. As of now, there is no cure for a Prion disease. "It may be down the road but its spread so easily from deer to deer if they come in contact with the saliva so I think in fact it's going to be on the rise for years to come," said Davis.

It's still not fully understood how harmful CWD can be to humans so health officials recommend hunters check for reported cases of CWD in the area before hunting. Officials recommend avoiding deer that appear to be sick, always send your deer heads in for testing, and wear gloves when handling or field-dressing animals.

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