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‘Zombie’ Deer Disease Now Present in 24 States

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Unofficially dubbed the “Zombie Disease,” experts warn that an ailment afflicted deer populations could potentially spread to humans through the consumption of infected venison meat. Officially known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), it has begun infecting free-ranging deer, elk, and moose in 24 states and two Canadian provinces according to The Centers for Disease Control.

CWD is a fatal neurologic disease that is caused by prions, misfolded proteins that can cause serious damage to brain tissue. An animal infected with CWD may exhibit symptoms of moving very slowly, with a wide stance and staggering gait, hence the unofficial classification as a “zombie disease.” Eventually, infected animals will gradually lose body composition, becoming emaciated and eventually dying.

These symptoms, mainly the slowly staggering movement of infected animals, are what has gained this disease the unofficial classification as a “zombie disease.” Experts say that CWD is more similar to dementia, with infected animals appearing more confused than threatening.

Photo by Mark Cataldo on Unsplash

So far, there have been no reported cases of humans contracting CWD, though the CDC says that eating infected deer meat could potentially be a vector for spreading to humans. Scientists can’t say for sure whether it will make the jump to infect humans, but if infected flesh continues to be consumed, the likelihood of it increases.

CWD was first detected in the 1960’s in captive deer, then was found in the wild in the mid 80’s. Scientists say that once CWD is found in deer populations of certain areas, the risk of infection can remain for long periods of time.  

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told lawmakers that there must remain strict processing and packaging regulations for deer meat in order to stop the spread of infected meat. “If you put this into a meat processing plant … this is kind of a worst case nightmare,” Osterholm told lawmakers in his home state of Minnesota.

So far, CWD has not been detected in California nor any surrounding states. California has maintained legislation that takes action against the importing of captive deer and elk into the state. There are plans to continue monitoring local deer and elk populations to ensure the disease does not spread.

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