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Chronic Wasting Disease

​​​​​​​​​​What is chronic wasting disease (CWD)?

CWD is a nervous system disease that is found in members of the deer family (cervids). It causes death in these animals. CWD is much more common in deer, but it is also found in moose and elk. 

CWD is part of a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs includes:

CWD occurs in some parts of Alberta, from Cold Lake south to the US border. See the map of locations where CWD has been found in Alberta​. It has also been found in wild game (cervids) in Saskatchewan, the United States, Norway, and South Korea.

Does CWD infect people?

There is no direct evidence that CWD has ever been transmitted to humans like mad cow disease (as vCJD). However, some research shows that CWD can be transmitted to monkeys closely related to humans by feeding them meat or brain tissue from deer and elk infected with CWD. Because of this, health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest being careful if you eat meat from animals harvested from areas where CWD has been found.

What causes CWD and how does it spread?

TSEs like CWD and mad cow disease are caused by infectious proteins called prions (say “PREE-ons”). In CWD, these proteins are found in the brain, spinal cord, lymph nodes, spleen, and muscle tissue.

CWD is thought to spread between animals by:

  • direct animal-to-animal contact
  • contact with saliva, urine, carcass parts, or feces from infected animals
  • soil that has been contaminated with infected tissues or fluids

How can I lower the risk of CWD?

Alberta Health recommends that any animals from the deer family that are harvested from areas where CWD has been found​ should be tested before you eat any parts of the animal. A negative test result does not guarantee that the animal is not infected with CWD, but does make it less likely. Find out more about testing services  for CWD.

A number of health organizations continue to gather evidence and check for any potential human health risk of CWD.

Other ways to lower your risk:

  • Do not handle or eat meat from any animal that appears sick.
  • Avoid eating the brain, spinal cord, spleen, and lymph nodes of any harvested animal. If the animal is infected, these parts may have high concentrations of prion.
  • Follow best practices for handling game animals:
    • wear protective gloves
    • handle organs and nervous tissue as little as possible
    • wash your hands with soap and water
    • disinfect instruments after handling carcasses
  • If someone gives you deer meat, ask where it was harvested. If it was harvested in an area where CWD is found, ask if it was tested.
  • If you have your wild game commercially processed, ask that your animal be processed on its own, without meat from other animals added to it.

Restaurants that sell venison (like deer or elk meat) or other game meat get their meat from a farm. All of these animals are tested and must be shown to be negative for CWD before they are sold. The risk of eating infected meat in restaurant is therefore considered to be very low.

Where can I find the latest information about CWD?

These organizations are tracking and studying CWD. Their websites have the most up-to-date information about this disease.

Current as of: August 12, 2022

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services