The Spread of the ‘Zombie Deer Disease’

A concerning brain illness nicknamed “zombie deer disease” is spreading rapidly among wildlife in parts of the United States, prompting warnings from researchers about potential transmission to humans.

What is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal neurological illness that affects cervids – a group of animals including deer, elk and moose. It causes behavioral changes, loss of bodily control, drastic weight loss and eventually death.

The disease is caused by malformed proteins called prions that attack brain and nerve tissue. It spreads through direct contact between animals, or indirectly through prion-contaminated soil, food and surfaces.

Alarm Over Recent Spread

CWD was recently detected in over 800 samples from deer, moose and elk across Wyoming, including America’s Yellowstone National Park. It has now been reported in wildlife across 31 U.S. states.

Researchers have labeled CWD a “slow-moving disaster” and are advising governments to prepare for potential transmission to humans, given past examples like mad cow disease spilling over. There is currently no vaccine or cure for infected animals.

Monkey Study Stokes Fears

While no cases have been reported yet in humans, a study found monkeys could get infected by consuming CWD-contaminated meat, heightening fears over zoonotic risk. The CDC thus warns prion diseases could enter the human food supply.

Research Challenges

Experts note several challenges in controlling CWD’s spread:

  • No proven ways yet to eradicate prions from animals or eliminate environmental contamination.
  • Long incubation period means many infected animals show no symptoms for over a year.
  • Lack of cost-effective diagnostic testing for live animals.

Public Health Response

In light of rising “zombie deer disease” cases, experts advise public health preparations including:

  • Surveillance and data tracking of geographic spread
  • Quarantines of infected animals
  • Proper deer carcass handling to avoid contamination
  • Getting hunters tested for the disease



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