Turns Out, You Can Get Tuberculosis From Deer—And It Happened to This Michigan Hunter

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning to hunters after a man likely contracted tuberculosis from a deer.

In “Notes from the Field” issued this week, the CDC broke down the story of an unidentified 77-year-old man in Michigan who contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis, a zoonotic form of the bacteria that can cause tuberculosis (aka, one that can spread from humans to animals). The man hadn’t recently traveled to areas where tuberculosis is common, hadn’t been around anyone infected with tuberculosis, and hadn't ingested unpasteurized milk (all possible causes of tuberculosis).

The man did, however, regularly hunt and field-dress deer (aka, removing the internal organs of a recently hunted deer), including in an area where deer were infected with Mycobacterium bovis. So, they concluded, the man likely contracted tuberculosis from deer. As a result, the CDC is now urging hunters to use “personal protective equipment” while field-dressing deer.

Wait, what is tuberculosis again?

So here's the thing: The tuberculosis that more commonly infects humans is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the CDC says. The form that this man contracted—Myobacterium bovis—is “a little bit different but related,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. Essentially, Myobacterium bovis is a zoonotic form of bacteria that can cause tuberculosis, but is primarily found in bison, elk, and deer.

With tuberculosis, the bacteria usually attack the lungs. However, the bacteria can attack any part of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain, the CDC says. Not everyone who is infected with tuberculosis bacteria gets sick, but people who do will have symptoms that depend on the area of the body where the person is infected. If it infects the lungs, which, again, is known as pulmonary tuberculosis, symptoms can include a bad, persistent cough, chest pain, and coughing up blood. Other symptoms can include weight loss, a lack of appetite, and fever. 

How do people usually get tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis bacteria is spread through the air from one person to another, the CDC says, and it can go in the air when an infected person coughs, speaks, or sings. You can then breathe in the bacteria and become infected.

When it comes to contracting it from deer, the CDC says that the bacteria can be inhaled while the deer is being field-dressed.

Once the bacteria is in your body, it can settle in your lungs, grow, and move through your blood to other parts of your body, like your kidneys, spine, and brain, the CDC says.

Tuberculosis is common in the world, but it’s not as common in the U.S., says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In fact, many cases of tuberculosis that happen in the US. are in patients who immigrated from other parts of the world, he says.

So, how is tuberculosis treated?

First, it's important to know that not everyone who is infected with tuberculosis bacteria becomes sick. But, in those who do become sick, tuberculosis is treated with antibiotics, Dr. Schaffner says. “It can be treated in a pretty straightforward way,” he says.

It is, however, a long process: People who have tuberculosis will often have to take antibiotics for “several months,” Dr. Adalja says. And, while people who contract tuberculosis and receive treatment typically recover, Dr. Schaffner says, the disease can be fatal in some cases.

But for right now, as far contracting tuberculosis from deer, Dr. Schaffner says hunters shouldn’t freak out about this, but should take precautions and be aware if infected deer are in their area.

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