Increasing Concerns as ‘Zombie’ Deer Disease Spreads: Could It Infect Humans?

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), also referred to as “zombie deer disease,” is a growing environmental and potentially public health concern.

This prion disease affects cervids — deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, and moose — and has been increasingly detected across North America, with cases now reported in 32 US states and four Canadian provinces. This expansion marks a significant uptick in both geographical spread and species affected.

Understanding Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD is a prion disease. Prions are misfolded proteins that induce other normally folded proteins in the brain to also misfold, leading to brain damage and a suite of neurological symptoms.

In cervids, this results in drastic weight loss, lack of coordination, listlessness, and eventually death.

What makes CWD particularly alarming is its long incubation period. Infected animals can spread the disease for over a year before showing any symptoms.

The Human Risk Factor

To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD in humans.

However, the disease’s trajectory in non-human primates raises some significant concerns. Studies have shown that certain primates, when exposed to infected meat or bodily fluids, can contract a form of the disease. This finding has implications for human health, given the close genetic and physiological similarities between humans and these primates.

The World Health Organization has stressed the importance of preventing prion diseases, including CWD, from entering the human food chain. This recommendation underscores the potential risks associated with consuming infected meat, although the exact nature and magnitude of the risk to humans remain largely speculative at this stage.

Preventive Measures and Research Imperatives

Given the uncertain but potentially severe implications for human health, there is an urgent need for robust monitoring and research. This includes tracking the spread of CWD, developing diagnostic tools for early detection in animals, and understanding how CWD prions might interact with human biology.

Current preventive measures focus on wildlife management and public education, particularly around the handling and consumption of game meat. Hunters in areas with CWD are advised to test deer and elk for the disease before consumption and to avoid eating meat from animals that test positive.

Looking Ahead: The Intersection of Wildlife Health and Human Safety

As CWD continues to spread, the intersection of wildlife health and human safety becomes increasingly relevant.

The disease’s expansion not only impacts ecological dynamics but also poses a potential risk to public health. The situation calls for a multidisciplinary approach, combining wildlife management, disease ecology, and public health efforts to mitigate the spread of CWD and safeguard both animal and human populations.

The progression of “zombie” deer disease is a stark reminder of the delicate balance between wildlife and human health. It emphasizes the need for proactive measures, scientific inquiry, and public awareness to address this emerging challenge.