A mysterious illness called chronic wasting disease has been identified in deer, elk and moose in 24 states. With symptoms such as drooling, lethargy, stumbling, aggression and dramatic weight loss, it’s led some to label it “zombie’’ deer disease.
The neurodegenerative affliction is related to so-called mad cow disease. Both are caused by abnormal proteins on the outside of certain cells within the animal that clump together in the brain, impairing its function. Both diseases are fatal and have no known treatment or cure.
Now, experts are starting to warn the deer disease may be transmittable to humans. It is spread through bodily fluids, and it can be picked up in the environment without direct contact with a diseased animal.
Hunters and others who spend time in the woods are at the greatest risk of acquiring the disease. While there are no confirmed cases of animal-to-human transmission, a University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist predicts it’s only a matter of time before humans acquire the disease by eating the meat of an infected deer.
Making matters worse, the disease can take years to manifest itself, so it’s possible a hunter could kill a normal-looking yet infected animal, and contract the disease by eating the meat. Because it can take years for symptoms to appear, the affected person may not even know something is wrong. And the illness can be spread by hunters who share venison with family and friends.
Wildlife officials have published guidelines for meat processors and hunters to reduce the risk of exposure to the disease. Meanwhile, scientists continue to search for ways to kill the zombie disease.