The chronic wasting disease isn’t a mystery confounding biologists, but is still a threat to wildlife.
Recently, there has been an upsurge in the usage of the term “Zombie Deer Disease.” Fortunately, we are not looking at the start of the apocalypse or even at a new disease.
The real illness is called chronic wasting disease (CWD), which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes as a prion disease. It affects elk, reindeer, moose, sika deer and deer. Luckily, there have been no reports of infections passing on to humans. Nonetheless, it is not encouraged to interact with these sick animals.
So what happens to any of these creatures that are infected with CWD? For some, nothing may happen for a long time. CWD can lie dormant in an infected host for over a year. Once symptoms do appear, the CDC states that the animal will have drastic weight loss, listlessness and clumsiness.
There are no vaccines or treatment for this fatal disease. And to make things worse, this year CWD has infected free range deer, elk and moose in over 24 states in the U.S. and two provinces in Canada.
Unlike what the sensationalist nickname “Zombie Deer Disease” might suggest, these animals have a low chance of actually attacking any human. In fact, they are a greater danger to themselves and the surrounding ecosystem.
The rise of infected deer is a major concern for wildlife conservationists and ecologists because there is no cure, and unless the animals show symptoms, it is impossible to spot the infected. With the widespread epidemic, it begs the question of how it will impact the biodiversity of our wilderness, especially since it is highly contagious between its different affected species.
Despite the lack of report on human infection, hunters and people in general are warned against handling infected animals. The CDC has made a couple of guidelines to reduce the chances of human infection.
They caution against touching roadkill and eating untested deer meat. Hunted meat meant for consumption should be tested for CDW first. However, testing is limited to certain stages of CDW; therefore, it is not completely reliable. It is still a good idea to be careful and so all meat should be processed and packaged individually to avoid any chance of contamination.
Finally, for hunters and people who handle deer and similar animals, latex or rubber gloves are highly recommended. Furthermore, one should avoid handling deer brains or spinal cords.
Although the informal name“Zombie Deer Disease” is a dramatization of what the actual disease is, the problem at hand should not be taken lightly. Many deer around the country are sick, and it is extremely difficult to determine the true number of infected deer and elk.
It may be easy for humans to avoid contracting such a fatal illness, most deer, elk and moose do not have such options. Without any method of prevention and treatment, the future of these species is unsure.