A disease that is currently affected deer is making its way across the United States and experts from the CDC are warning that if moves are not made to contain the disease, it could spread to humans next. The virus, Chronic wasting disease, is making headlines for its nickname, Zombie Deer Disease.
The disease causes animals affected by it to slowly lose strength, nervous system function, and can even change the animals behavior towards the end of its life, possibly even resulting in aggressive behavior similar to rabies.
Now experts are beginning to worry the disease could eventually come to affect humans, particularly those that regularly eat deer meat. The disease could spread in a similar manner to the Mad Cow Disease of the 1990’s.
According to a statement from the Center For Disease Control:
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. It has been found in some areas of North America, including Canada and the United States, Norway and South Korea. It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms. CWD can affect animals of all ages and some infected animals may die without ever developing the disease. CWD is fatal to animals and there are no treatments or vaccines.
To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.
The CWD prion has been shown to experimentally infect squirrel monkeys, and also laboratory mice that carry some human genes. In addition, a study begun in 2009 by Canadian and German scientists is evaluating whether CWD can be transmitted to macaques, a type of monkey that is genetically closer to people than any other animal that has been infected with CWD previously. On July 10, 2017, the scientists presented a summary of the study’s progress, in which they showed that CWD was transmitted to monkeys that were fed infected meat (muscle tissue) or brain tissue from CWD-infected deer and elk.
Some of the meat came from asymptomatic deer that had CWD (i.e., deer that appeared healthy and had not begun to show signs of the illness yet). Meat from these asymptomatic deer was also able to infect the monkeys with CWD. CWD was also able to spread to macaques that had the infectious material placed directly into their brains.
“It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Michael Osterhold, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said.
“It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial, and will not be isolated events,” he continued, also saying, “People have to understand the significance of this. We can’t wait until we have the first cases coming,”
For now, it is recommended to make sure you know the source of any deer meat you consume and report any animals that are acting strangely or seem sickly to authorities so the spread of the disease can be properly tracked.