According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Zombie Deer Disease, also known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a deadly neurological infection that typically affects deer, elk, and moose, has been reported in 31 U.S. states.
Chronic Wasting Disease is a progressive illness that affects the brain, spinal cord, and other tissues of infected animals. It belongs to the class of infections known as prion diseases, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE), leading to abnormal prion proteins on cell surfaces, resulting in brain clumps and damage.
Although no cases have been reported in humans so far, scientists have expressed concerns that the infection could potentially cross over to humans without a cure, and people should be prepared for that possibility.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, views CWD as a „slow-moving disaster.“ Osterholm, an epidemiologist, conducted research on the outbreak of mad cow disease in the UK, a related prion disease.
Dr. Cory Anderson, who obtained his Ph.D. from Osterholm on CWD transmission pathways, said, „The BSE [mad cow] outbreak in the UK provided an example of how things can go crazy overnight when a spillover event occurs that affects livestock to humans. We are discussing the potential for something similar to happen. No one is saying it will definitely happen, but it’s important for people to be prepared.“
„We are dealing with a disease that is invariably fatal, incurable, and highly contagious. The concern lies in the fact that we have no effective and simple way to eradicate it, not in the animals it infects, nor in the environment it contaminates,“ Anderson said.
Specific studies suggest the possibility of CWD transmission to certain non-human primates like monkeys through consumption of contaminated meat or contact with brain or bodily fluids of infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there is a potential risk for humans as well.
Signs of Infection:
Animals may not show signs of infection even years after becoming infected. However, with advancing CWD, infected animals may show changes in appearance, including drastic weight loss, stumbling, lack of coordination, drooling, excessive thirst or urination. They may also exhibit behavioral changes such as lack of fear of humans and lethargy.
It is believed that the proteins causing the infection are transmitted between animals through bodily fluids such as feces, saliva, blood, or urine. They can be transmitted either through direct contact or indirectly through contaminated soil, food, or water. The infection-causing prions can also persist in the environment after the death of an infected animal and be transmitted from the environment.
If the infection were to cross over to humans, it would likely occur through consumption of contaminated meat. Therefore, it is best to avoid consuming meat from deer and elk that appear sick or have been found dead. When handling meat or dressing the animal, it is recommended to wear latex gloves and minimize handling of the animal’s organs, especially brain or spinal cord tissue.