Although the rapid spread of the infamous bird flu throughout other parts of the world has prompted Alaska biologists to reiterate warnings to hunters about the careful handling of animal carcasses, they say local wildlife populations carry few diseases dangerous to humans.
In fact, contrary to what alarmist media coverage sometimes suggests, properly handled game meat in Alaska can be safer to eat than commercially produced meat, said Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Meat handling precautions for game meat generally parallel the handling safety measures that should be taken when handling any meat, with the addition of a few butchering precautions, she said.
When butchering an animal, for example, hunters should avoid contacting infected, pus-filled areas of flesh with their knives by carving wide circles around infected areas and discarding them, she said.
And if the knife becomes contaminated by the infected area she recommends soaking it in a solution of water and 10 percent bleach before reusing it.
But even the risks associated with infected flesh are generally low.
"It would be really hard for you to get sick from that unless you cut your hand and introduced it to your blood stream," she said.
No diseases have been detected in Alaska game meat that can be transmitted to humans after it has been thoroughly cooked, she said.
And the most serious risks with eating raw or undercooked meat are limited to bear and bird meat.
"There's no justification for eating raw bear meat in Alaska," Kimberlee said.
Like pigs, bears carry a strain of trichinosis, a parasitic roundworm that grows and mates in the intestines of its hosts. But the strain of trichinosis found in bears differs from the strain found in pigs.
"Freezing the meat does not kill this parasite like it does in pork," she said. "Our parasites are adapted to be in the Arctic."
Alaska biologists frequently receive concerned calls from hunters about a second type of parasitic worm known as a muscle tapeworm, however, humans can safely consume meat infected by the muscle tapeworm, said Lousia Castrodale, an epidemiologist for the Section of Epidemiology at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Muscle tapeworms form cysts in the muscle tissue of herbivores such as caribou and moose.
Unlike trichinosis cysts, which are usually too small to be seen, muscle tapeworm form easy to see, fluid-filled cysts.
The flesh of animals infected with muscle tapeworms is safe for human consumption even when dried and uncooked, but should not be fed to dogs where the tapeworm's cysts can produce adult tapeworms that then live in the animal's intestine.
Dogs are vulnerable to a second type of worm found in game that does not transmit directly from game to humans, but can be transmitted to humans through dogs that have eaten infected flesh.
Hydatid tapeworm cycts can be found in the lungs of herbivores and transmit to dogs and wolves when they eat the infected lungs. Humans can then become infected by the tapeworm's eggs, found in the scat of infected dogs and wolves.
Hunters should keep these two parasitic worms in mind when feeding the skin, bones, head or organs of game animals to their dogs, Kimberlee said.
"If you are going to feed the organs to the dog, they need to be cooked," she said.
Other diseases that can be transmitted between humans and game found in Alaska include rabies, brucellosis and tularemia. But these are either rare or rarely transmitted to humans. In the case of rabies, for instance, a human case has not been reported since the 1940s, Castrodale said.
Although it is wise to take precautions against disease, Kimberlee said consuming game meat in Alaska poses few risks and that she is frustrated by media accounts that scare Alaskans into thinking state's game is unsafe.
"We generally have very healthy populations," she said.
And as for the deadly strain of avian Influenza?
The disease has not been detected in Alaska and there are so far no documented cases of the disease being transmitted from wild birds to humans.