Is ‘Zombie Deer Disease’ a Threat to Humans? Chronic Wasting Disease Surge Sparks Concerns


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Picture this: a group of deer, looking as if they’ve stumbled out of a Halloween party too early. Except, there are no costumes; these animals are victims of a bizarre illness called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), colloquially known as ‘zombie deer disease.’ But this isn’t just a wildlife concern; researchers are waving red flags, warning that this eerie affliction could pose a threat to humans.

Researchers in the US have raised concerns about a concerning surge in cases of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) among wildlife across North America, cautioning that this deadly virus might pose a risk to humans.

Referred to as the ‘zombie deer disease,’ CWD targets the brains, nervous systems, and other tissues of cervids, encompassing deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and similar animals. Infected animals suffer from deteriorating brains that develop holes, resembling a spongy texture, resulting in a fatal condition akin to the mad cow disease crisis of the 1980s.

Infected creatures exhibit distinct symptoms, including drooling, lethargy, stumbling, and a vacant stare.

The issue has been highlighted by experts as a slow-moving catastrophe, as outlined in a recent report by The Guardian. Dr. Cory Anderson, a CWD researcher at the University of Minnesota, described the illness as “invariably fatal, incurable, and highly contagious,” underscoring the near-impossibility of eradicating it once it infiltrates an environment. Scientists have observed that CWD is resilient against disinfectants, formaldehyde, radiation, and incineration at extremly high temperatures, persisting in dirt or on surfaces for extended periods.

Reports from the state of Wyoming indicated the detection of this disease in around 800 samples collected from deer, elk, and moose last year, marking an increase in infection rates compared to previous years, as stated by Breanna Ball from the state’s Game and Fish Department.

Of particular concern is the apparent presence of the disease in Yellowstone National Park in recent months. Dr. Thomas Roffe, former chief of animal health for the US Federal Fish & Wildlife service, emphasized the park’s ecosystem as a significant habitat for a diverse array of large wild mammals on the continent. The ramifications of failing to contain the spread of CWD could potentially impact the millions of annual visitors to Yellowstone.

According to a US Geological Survey released recently, the disease has been identified in 32 states and three Canadian provinces.

Despite no reported instances of CWD transmission to humans so far, concerns persist. Up to 15,000 infected animals were estimated to have been consumed by humans in 2017, as reported by the Alliance for Public Wildlife. Epidemiologists in the US and Canada have cautioned that given its affiliation with a group of fatal neurological disorders, including mad cow disease, there might be a risk of transmission to humans.

The infamous outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the UK during the 1980s and ’90s resulted in the slaughter of over 4 million cattle and the deaths of 178 individuals who contracted the human variant of the disease, vCJD, from consuming infected beef.

While no definitive predictions have been made, experts stress the importance of readiness and preparation for a potential scenario similar to past outbreaks.

Hot Take: Are we on the brink of a zombie apocalypse? Well, not quite, but a disease affecting deer has got everyone on their toes. Imagine a world where drooling, stumbling, and blank stares aren’t just zombie movie tropes but real-life symptoms for deer. It’s like they’re auditioning for a role in a low-budget horror film, except this plot twist is happening in the wild.

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