Scientists are concerned 'zombie deer' disease could spread to humans

Expert spoke to lawmakers in Minnesota last week

Photo does not have a caption

Experts told lawmakers at a state Capitol that chronic wasting disease should be treated as a public health issue and said human cases are likely to be “documented in the years ahead.”

The disease, sometimes referred to as CWD, causes infected animals to stumble around, drool and get aggressive toward humans they once feared. It's been called "zombie deer" disease because once infected, the deer are known to lose weight and become listless, among other strange behaviors. It's been said that it's impossible for hunters to tell when a deer has CWD. The neurological illness affects white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose.

The spookiest thing about it though, isn’t the animals' resemblance to zombies -- it’s the fact that it’s an incurable prion disease, the website Popular Science said in a recent report. That means it's progressive and neurodegenerative.

The human link

To be clear, there haven't been any reported cases of chronic wasting disease in humans, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Still, Osterholm said, it's something to be cautious about, moving forward. Scientists don't want the disease to spread to or affect people, he said at the Minnesota state Capitol last week.

"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption (of) contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," said Osterholm in comments published by USA Today. "It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."

CWD is deadly and has affected the deer population in at least 24 states and two Canadian provinces (scroll to the bottom for a full list).

What to do about it

No vaccines or treatments are available at this time. CWD spreads from animal to animal and also through contaminated drinking water or food, according to published reports.

A couple states have started working on prevention measures to combat the spread of the disease. In North Carolina, anyone transporting animals from the deer family -- as in, carcass parts -- into the state must follow processing and packaging regulations. In Indiana, the state has been monitoring for cases, although testing isn't mandatory, USA Today reported.

In some Indiana counties, state officials are asking hunters to have their harvested deer tested for the disease.

Other things to know

"In the meantime, if you hunt (or eat meat that others have hunted for) in one of the infected areas, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) doesn’t necessarily say you can’t eat your venison," the Popular Science report reads. "They do recommend you not eat any animals that look sick or are acting strangely and to minimize touching the organs as much as possible (especially the brain and spinal cord). You can also, in some states, get the meat tested by contacting your local wildlife authority. Beyond that, it’s up to you to decide whether the risk is worth it. This is untrodden territory."

CWD, for what it's worth, isn't exactly new. It was first discovered in 1967.

Where has it been found?

Depending where you get your information, CWD is either in 24 or 25 U.S. states. Here's a list from a Texas Parks and Wildlife fact sheet:

  • Texas
  • Michigan
  • Virginia
  • Colorado
  • Wyoming
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Montana
  • Wisconsin
  • New Mexico
  • Minnesota
  • Oklahoma
  • Illinois
  • Utah
  • New York
  • West Virginia
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • North Dakota
  • Maryland
  • Iowa
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Mississippi
  • Arkansas

About the Author: