More than 20 states across the United States have already reported cases of a brain-wasting animal disease that currently has no vaccine or treatment.
As the chronic wasting disease spreads among deer, elk, and moose in 24 states and two Canadian province, health officials are worried that humans may also be at risk of the infection.
CWD Found In Monkeys That Ate Infected Deer Meat
The disease spreads through contact with contaminated body fluids and tissues. Animals may also get infected through indirect exposure to CWD in the environment such as in food and drinking water.
No case of CWD has yet been reported in humans, but research suggests there is potential risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a 2017 study that found evidence that monkeys that ate infected deer meat contracted the disease.
"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 CDC said. "These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people."
Disease May Transfer To Humans Soon
Michael Osterholm, the director of Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that the animal disease transferring to humans may happen soon.
"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," Osterholm said. "It's possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."
Osterholm compared the situation to the mad cow disease that killed cattle in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. There were initial doubts that the disease could spread to humans, but 156 people in the UK eventually died because of the infection.
How CWD Will Likely Infect Humans
The CDC said the most likely way CWD will spread to humans is through consumption of infected deer meat.
According to the Alliance for Public Wildlife, between 7,000 to 15,000 animals infected with CWD are eaten annually, and it is possible this number could increase by 20 percent per year. As more infected meat is consumed, Osterholm said the risk of the disease crossing over and infecting humans could also increase.