There’s been a lot of talk about deer diseases this fall. Sadly, a sizable chunk of the discussion has been flat-out wrong.
The confusion got started late this summer, when a couple of media outlets cautioned against eating deer because they might be infected with bovine tuberculosis. It got really cranked up when deer in several West Virginia counties began dying of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a completely unrelated illness.
If that weren’t enough, some people began equating bovine tuberculosis and EHD with chronic wasting disease. People began calling the state Division of Natural Resources, wondering if the state’s deer had suddenly become unsafe to eat.
Jim Crum fielded a lot of those calls. Crum, the DNR’s deer project leader, is uniquely qualified to address those questions. He owns a Ph.D. in wildlife diseases, and is the state’s principal liaison with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Ga.
The bottom line from Crum:
Chill out, folks. Bovine tuberculosis has not — repeat, not — been found in West Virginia’s deer herd. Epizootic hemorrhagic disease has killed deer in several counties, but is no threat to humans. Chronic wasting disease is a concern, but it has been detected in only five Mountain State counties.
The erroneous story about bovine tuberculosis in deer sprang from a “mortality and morbidity” report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That report cautioned hunters to be careful when they field-dressed deer from areas where bovine TB was present.
“The media story left out that the only place bovine TB had been found in deer was in Michigan,” Crum said. “That’s kind of important. We’ve never had a case of it in deer here in West Virginia.”
OK, so hunters shouldn’t worry about tuberculosis. What about EHD?
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, sometimes mistakenly referred to as bluetongue virus, pops up from time to time in West Virginia. This year, it cut a swath through the middle of the state from Summers County to Marion County, causing localized deer die-offs along the way.
Crum said the outbreak wasn’t at all unusual. In fact, the state suffered far worse outbreaks in 2007 and 2012.
In each instance, lots of deer died but plenty more survived. No human caught EHD from the survivors, for one overriding reason: The disease can’t be transmitted to humans who eat meat from animals that have or have had the disease.
“When a deer gets EHD, it’s like a human getting the flu,” Crum said. “Deer that get it get sick, and they either die from it or get over it. Once they get over it, the virus clears from the deer and that’s that.”
So then, hunters shouldn’t worry about getting EHD. Cool. What about chronic wasting disease?
For most of West Virginia’s hunters, CWD isn’t an issue. It has been discovered in only five of the state’s 55 counties — Hampshire, Hardy, Berkeley, Mineral and Morgan.
CWD is always fatal to deer that contract it. However, according to the CDC and the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that the CWD has ever been transmitted to humans. Even so, they warn hunters not to eat meat from infected deer.
The DNR runs game-checking stations in the Eastern Panhandle to test hunters’ kills for the rogue proteins that cause the disease. Hunters can also have deer tested at the agency’s Romney office. The samples are sent out of state for analysis, and the results take a minimum of 10 to 15 working days to receive. However, the DNR cautions hunters that even a negative test result does not guarantee the meat is fit to consume.
“There’s currently no food-safety test for CWD,” Crum said.
In general, West Virginia’s deer are safe to eat. Only in the Eastern Panhandle is there the least bit of cause for concern, and even there it’s no big deal. Hunters there have been killing and eating deer since 2005, when CWD was discovered, and to date no one has suffered any ill effects.