New fears are being expressed that chronic wasting disease, which preys on deer and related species, will impact humans in the near future.

Michael Osterholm, director for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease and Research Prevention, was a lead voice offering a warning at a recent hearing, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“It is my best professional judgment based on my public health experience and the risk of BSE transmission to humans in the 1980s and 1990s and my extensive review and evaluation of laboratory research studies … that it is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Osterholm said.

“It is possible that (the) number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events,” he added.

“I believe it’s just a matter of time until there is a deer-to-human transmission,” he told the website Northern Wilds.

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The traditional wisdom is that chronic wasting disease represents more of a potential future threat to humans than a current reality.

“To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website.

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“These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain,” it reported.

While noting that existing experiments are contradictory, the CDC emphasized caution, saying “these experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD.”

But at the Minnesota hearing, one researcher said his research makes it more urgent to keep CWD from entering the human food chain.

Peter Larsen, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said in his work, a rock exposed to CWD was put in a cage with live animals, who then became infected.

“If I were to model contamination, the closest thing I can think of is it would be similar to modeling radioactive material,” Larsen said.

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A similar analogy was used by Lindsay Thomas of the Quality Deer Management Association, a Georgia-based hunting group.

“It’s kind of like radioactivity. Once you have this stuff, it never really goes away,’’ he said. “So the goal is to keep it out as long as you possibly can. If you don’t have it, you don’t want it.

“Consider it like a front in a war where you do everything to keep it out. Deer hunters need to be at war with this disease.”

The disease is now in more than 20 states, according to Forbes.

“In CWD the brains of deer, moose, and elk progressively become like sponges,” Forbes contributor Bruce Y. Lee wrote. “This leads to a slow deterioration in brain function, resulting in severe weight loss, loss of energy, poor balance and coordination, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, more aggressive behavior, and typically eventual death.

“Hence, the descriptive moniker ‘zombie deer disease.'”

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