The “Zombie Deer Disease” is rising slowly in American grasslands, and the number of cases is going up among deer. The increasing numbers are worrying experts. According to The Guardian, the Canadian province of British Columbia has a plan to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) as it moves across North America.

The disease is spreading among wildlife, not just in America but also in places like Scandinavia and South Korea. Canadian scientists are concerned about this deadly infection, commonly known as “zombie deer disease,” and they are afraid it might infect humans soon. Its official name is chronic wasting disease.

Earlier cases of zombie deer disease

zombie deer disease

The first case of zombie deer disease was found in Yellowstone National Park in the US. In Canada, the disease was already seen in deer on farms in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Quebec, as well as in wild deer in Manitoba. Now, British Columbia in Canada is taking steps to stop the spread of this disease, especially in the Kootenay district where two cases were found in mule deer and white-tailed deer.

The CDC says that deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, and moose are affected by chronic wasting disease, and it has been found in Canada, the US, Norway, and South Korea. In 2023, in the Alberta province of Canada, 23% of mule deer tested positive for the disease according to surveillance results.

What is chronic wasting disease?

Chronic Wasting Disease is a sickness that affects deer, elk, and moose’s brains. Animals with this illness show signs like drooling, feeling tired, stumbling, and having a blank stare, which is why it’s sometimes called “zombie deer disease.” The cause of the disease is misshaped proteins called prions, making the brain not work properly.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), or prion diseases, are serious and deadly conditions that impact the brains and nervous systems of various animals, including humans, cows, and sheep. They are rare, progressive disorders that lead to changes in the brain tissue, resembling a sponge under a microscope. These diseases don’t provoke an inflammatory response and result in memory issues, personality changes, and worsening movement problems over time. Unfortunately, the world has no cure for TSEs till now.

What’s unique about prions is that they can make normal brain proteins fold the wrong way, leading to illness. These diseases are worrying because prions are tough and can stay in the environment for a long time. Regular cleaning methods like formaldehyde, radiation, or very high heat have a hard time getting rid of them.

Symptoms of this disease

“Zombie deer disease” is just a nickname for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a sickness that mostly affects deer, elk, and moose. It’s important to know these signs can be like other illnesses, and a sure way to know is by checking the brain after the deer has passed away. Chronic Wasting Disease is a big worry for keeping wildlife safe because there’s no cure right now.

The USGS says that chronic wasting disease (CWD) usually takes a long time to show any signs, about 18–24 months after an animal gets infected. During this time, the animals seem and behave like they’re completely fine. The symptoms of Zombie Deer disease are:

  1. Getting Very Thin: Sick deer can look skinny because the illness makes them lose weight slowly.
  2. Acting Strange: Infected animals might act weird, like avoiding other deer, being tired, and not being scared of people.
  3. Trouble Moving: CWD damages the deer’s brain, making them move strangely, have a hard time walking, and not control their bodies well.
  4. Drooling a Lot: Sick deer might have more spit or drool.
  5. Drinking and Peeing a Lot: Some sick animals might be very thirsty and pee more than usual.
  6. Strange Postures: Deer with CWD might stand or hold their head in strange ways.

Risk of transfer into humans

CWD spreads when animals touch each other or go to places with infected fluids. It moves between animals when they touch or share things like poop, spit, blood, or pee. This can happen if they touch each other or if these things get into the soil, food, or water around them.

This can be a danger to wild animals and might also affect humans if they eat meat from infected animals. People are working to watch and control the disease to stop it from spreading and causing problems for nature and public health.

In 2017, a study found that monkeys got CWD when they were given infected meat or brain tissue from sick deer and elk. Hermann Schätzl from the University of Calgary says this suggests CWD could probably infect humans. While there’s no proof that people have gotten it from eating deer meat, it’s likely to happen in the future, he says.

Schätzl is concerned because CWD is spreading quickly, and it might change over time. If it affects humans, there’s a worry it could pass from person to person, similar to bird flu or COVID-19. When researchers fed infected brain tissue to monkeys, they found more signs of the disease in the spinal cord than in the brain, which is usually not checked for this disease.

Schätzl thinks if a person gets infected, it might not show up for many years due to the slow development of prion diseases. So, there could be a problem because you wouldn’t see any symptoms for a long time.

Mad cow disease is another prion illness which has harmed more than 200 people. According to the FDA, humans got infected with mad cow disease by eating beef that was contaminated.

How to stay safe from zombie deer disease?

a) Don’t touch or go near sick or dead animals, and wear gloves if you have to handle their bodies.

b) Avoid eating meat from animals known to have CWD.

c) Dispose of animal remains properly, away from places where wild animals hang out.

d) Follow the rules for hunting, moving, and processing deer, elk, and similar animals.

e) Keep up to date with how common CWD is in your area and follow advice from wildlife experts.

f) Support efforts to learn more about and control the disease.

g) Quickly tell local wildlife authorities if you think you’ve found an animal with CWD.

h) Stay informed about new information on preventing and managing CWD.

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