Scientists Warn of ‘Zombie Deer Disease’ Threat to Humans, Fear Potential Transmission Risk

Scientists have raised alarms regarding the escalating prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD), colloquially referred to as “zombie deer disease.” First identified in Yellowstone National Park last year, the highly contagious infection has now spread to deer, elk, and moose populations across 33 states in the United States, as well as in Canada, Norway, and South Korea.

Characterized by severe damage to the brain, progressive loss of body condition, behavioral changes, excessive salivation, and a 100% fatality rate, CWD poses a significant threat. The New York State Department of Health has highlighted the absence of treatments or vaccines for the disease, leaving experts concerned about its potential impact on both wildlife and human populations.

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, emphasized the lack of preparedness in dealing with a potential spillover to humans, stating, “The bottom-line message is we are quite unprepared.” He noted the absence of contingency plans for addressing such a scenario, raising concerns about the potential consequences if the disease were to evolve to infect humans.

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‘Zombie Deer Disease’ Raises Concerns

Scientists have raised alarms regarding the escalating prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD), colloquially referred to as “zombie deer disease.”

Scientists have identified the consumption of infected venison as the most likely route for human transmission. Despite no reported cases of CWD in humans to date, concerns persist due to the possible mutation of the disease. CWD is caused by misfolded proteins known as prions, similar to the prion disease responsible for the transmission of mad cow disease from animals to humans.

Sabine Gilch, a researcher at the University of Calgary, explained how a related prion disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had jumped the transmission barrier from animals to humans during the BSE crisis. Gilch’s research indicated that CWD in humans might be contagious, with the potential for transmission from person to person.

To test this theory, Gilch and her team injected CWD isolates from infected deer into “humanized” mouse models. The resulting development of CWD in the mice, coupled with the shedding of infectious prions in feces, raised concerns about the potential contagious nature of CWD in humans.

Despite the absence of reported cases in humans so far, scientists stress the need for heightened vigilance and research to understand and address the evolving dynamics of chronic wasting disease, underscoring the importance of proactive measures to safeguard both wildlife and human populations from its potential consequences.

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