Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease that affects deer species. While there is no direct evidence that it can infect humans, people are advised to take precautions.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease found in deer, elk, and moose that affects the brain and nervous system. It has not been found in British Columbia (B.C.) but has been detected in wild or captive deer, elk and moose in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Québec, and 26 U.S. states including Montana.
There is no direct evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans and there have been no cases of disease in humans. However, people are advised to take precautions because the potential for transmission cannot be excluded. To minimize risk, Health Canada and the World Health Organization recommend that people not eat meat or other parts of an animal infected with chronic wasting disease.
The disease is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion that affects the brain and nervous system. It is an example of a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy disease like bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. As the disease progresses, tiny holes appear in the brain like a sponge and brain function deteriorates. The abnormal prion also accumulates in other organs and tissues, including lymph nodes and muscles.
Infected animals display symptoms such as weight loss, poor coordination, stumbling, drooling, trembling, and depression. An animal can be infected with chronic wasting disease for up to three years before showing signs of disease. It is fatal in all cases; there is no treatment or vaccine. It spreads easily between animals through saliva, urine, feces, tissue and even through plants and soil. The infected prion can survive in the environment for many years.
Chronic wasting disease has never been detected in an animal in B.C. The B.C. Wildlife Health Program began surveillance for chronic wasting disease in free-ranging deer, elk, moose and caribou in 2002.
It was first detected in captive deer in Colorado in 1967 and has been spreading across North America in wild and captive animals ever since. It has been detected in Canada in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and was recently found on a deer farm in Quebec. Currently, B.C., Washington and Idaho are considered free of the disease. Recently it has been found in northwestern Montana, near the border of B.C.
Hunters across B.C., but particularly in the Kootenay and Peace regions, are asked to help monitor for the disease by submitting deer heads for testing and reporting sick animals. The focus on these areas of the province is due their proximity to other jurisdictions (Alberta and Montana) where chronic wasting disease has been detected. Anyone encountering a sick deer, elk or moose exhibiting the symptoms of chronic wasting disease - thin, drooling, poor coordination, stumbling - should report it to the provincial Wildlife Health Program through the RAPP line at 1 877 952-7277 or call 250-751-3219.
Learn more about B.C.’s chronic wasting disease program and surveillance efforts
If you are hunting outside of B.C., leave the high-risk tissues - the brain, spinal cord, lymph nodes and organs - where the animal was harvested and return only with the meat. If you are hunting in an area with chronic wasting disease, consider submitting the head for testing with that jurisdiction’s Wildlife Health Program. If you wish to keep the skull or antlers, remove all brain tissue from the skull and connecting bone plate and disinfect with a 10% bleach solution. If you wish a hide tanned, remove all tissues, enclose in a plastic or sealed container, freeze and submit for tanning as soon as possible.
Chronic wasting disease has never been detected in an animal in B.C., but it is important to follow safe food handling practices. The BCCDC provides
guidelines for cutting and wrapping of uninspected meat like game meat. Keep uninspected meat separate from inspected meat; labelling the carcass with the name of the owner and where it came from and disposing of waste in a sanitary manner.
All equipment and utensils used in the processing of uninspected meat and meat products should be cleaned, washed and sanitized immediately after processing and prior to being used for processing other meat. For more information, read the