"Zombie Deer Disease": A Growing Concern for Human Health

Written by Henrik Rothen

Dec.28 - 2023 1:38 PM CET

Photo: Wiki Commons
Photo: Wiki Commons
Here's what we know about the 'Zombie Deer Disease'

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A recent case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Yellowstone National Park has raised alarms about the potential spread of this "zombie deer disease" to humans.

This disease, prevalent in deer and elk, is known for causing dementia-like symptoms and ultimately leading to death. With no cure or vaccine available, the disease's spread across the United States and its potential jump to humans is a cause for concern.

Understanding Zombie Deer Disease

Zombie deer disease, or CWD, primarily affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, and moose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that it deteriorates the brains of these animals, causing symptoms similar to dementia.

The disease is spread by prions, a type of protein that can affect both animals and humans, leading to progressive neurodegenerative disorders.

The World Health Organization has recommended keeping animals infected with CWD out of the human food chain, although there is currently no strong evidence of human infection from CWD prions.

Symptoms and Spread of the Disease

Animals infected with CWD exhibit symptoms like dementia, wobbliness, drooling, aggression, and weight loss about a year after infection. The disease has been detected in at least 31 states in the US, three provinces in Canada, and countries like Norway, Finland, Sweden, and South Korea. The first case was discovered in Colorado in 1967.

Human Risk and Precautions

While there have been no reports of CWD transmitting to humans, experimental research suggests it's a possibility, especially through the consumption of infected meat.

The CDC estimates that up to 15,000 animals with CWD are consumed each year. The prions can spread through an animal's saliva, urine, blood, or feces and remain in environments for extended periods. The CDC advises precautions like testing hunted animals before consuming their meat and avoiding animals that appear sick or act strangely.

Zoonotic Diseases: A Public Health Challenge

Zoonotic diseases, which can spread from animals to humans, have long posed a significant public health challenge. Examples include "mad cow" disease in the UK, rabies, avian influenza, and COVID-19, believed to have originated from animals.

The emergence of CWD as a potential zoonotic threat adds to the list of diseases that could jump from animals to humans, highlighting the importance of monitoring and controlling such diseases.

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