Will Deadly ‘Zombie’ Deer Disease Spread to Humans?

The Walking Dead has fed many people’s appetites for zombie entertainment for nine years now.

A vast majority of viewers don’t really believe a disease could actually turn people into flesh-eating zombies. But there’s just enough doubt to add an extra element of suspense to the show.

Well, there’s a real-life zombie-like disease inflicting deer in North America. And there are some who believe it’s only a matter of time before humans are infected. More on that in a moment.

Remember, public health officials once thought mad cow disease would not infect humans. But now it’s known that a cureless variant of the disease can indeed adversely impact humans.

No treatments are available

The zombie-like disease currently infecting some of the deer population in 24 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces is known as CWD.

It stands for Chronic Wasting Disease. The U.S. Geological Survey calls it “a fatal, neurological illness occurring in North American cervids (members of the deer family), including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose.”

There are no treatments or vaccines available for affected deer. The disease is transmitted through animal-to-animal contact. As well as through contaminated water or food.

Deer that have CWD display unusual behavior. Such as drooling, stumbling and general lack of coordination. And both aggression and listlessness, as well as a lack of fear of humans.

The threat is growing

CWD is not a new disease. It was first diagnosed in the 1960s. But now it’s considered a growing threat, especially in Minnesota where 35 cases have been identified in the southeastern part of the state.

Lawmakers and hunting groups in that state have been meeting to discuss ways to deal with the problem. CWD appears to always be fatal to any deer that gets infected.

Deer are a very important part of Minnesota’s ecology. Just one white-tailed deer can yield 40 to 50 pounds of protein-rich meat.

There are concerns that if the disease continues to spread, it could affect a much larger percentage of the state’s deer population.

Lawmakers are getting involved

The prions (misshapen proteins) that spread the disease are very strong and hardy. Some people are worried the equipment butchers use to process wild deer will become contaminated.

Minnesota lawmakers are trying to establish a moratorium on new deer farms. That’s where deer are raised for food and to breed deer genetically desirable for hunters.

With deer being shipped back and forth from these farms, the fear is that they are breeding grounds for the disease.

Another bill would require higher fences at existing deer farms. From the current eight-foot level to 10 feet.

A university of Minnesota team is hoping for a $1.8 million research grant to create a portable CWD-testing kit

It’s just a matter of time

So far, no human has been infected by this disease. At least as far as pubic health officials know.

But researchers recommend against eating a CWD-infected deer. Because nobody wants to find out the hard way.

Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

He has told lawmakers that CDW should be treated as a public health issue. He says it’s just a matter of time until a human is infected.

Like a Stephen King novel

“It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years head,” he said.

“It is possible that the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that animal studies suggest CWD could be a risk to humans.

Referring to the prions that spread the disease among deer and could potentially spread it to humans, Osterholm summed it up in an interesting fashion.

“If Stephen King could write an infectious disease novel, he would write about prions like this.”

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