The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has recently received numerous contacts from hunters concerning the safety of eating deer meat. These concerns were apparently brought about by recent news that a significant hemorrhagic disease outbreak in deer being reported in many southeastern states. Hemorrhagic disease (HD) can cause sickness in deer, but it is not a disease that affects people, pets, or livestock. Hunters should not be concerned about the safety of eating venison.
Each year during late summer and early fall DNR is contacted related to an occasional sick or dead deer that is found, according to Charles Ruth, Deer/Turkey Project supervisor for DNR. Although there are a number of diseases that can cause sickness and death in deer, the most likely cause during the late summer and fall is HD. The disease is caused by certain viruses that are transmitted by biting midges or gnats, commonly called no-see-ums. The seasonality of the disease is related to the life cycle of these insect vectors since they thrive during the warmer months in the Southeast.
In addition to being seasonal, hemorrhagic disease appears to flair-up about every 3 to 5 years. According to Ruth, "This is probably related to the fact that once deer are exposed to the disease they are more resistant to it. Therefore, if you have disease one year the deer become exposed or inoculated to the disease and you do not see much disease activity until there is turnover in the deer population. After several years you are dealing with another cohort of deer and their systems are 'naïve' to the disease. The last time there was significant HD activity in South Carolina was in 2002, therefore, disease activity could be relatively high this year."
On the other hand, because the disease does not affect humans, hunters should not be concerned with eating meat from harvested deer. Only in the rare event that a hunter kills an obviously sick or poor deer should it not be eaten. This is the case for all harvested game and has nothing to do with any specific disease like HD.
The bottom line on HD, according to Ruth, is the disease is common and it is simply part of being a deer in the Southeast.
DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.