The ‘zombie deer disease’ worries scientists about the possible spread to humans

The discovery of Yellowstone National Parks first case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) last month raised concerns that the deadly brain disease could spread to humans in the future, according to some scientists.

A deer carcass in a Wyoming park area tested positive for the highly contagious prion disease, which can also cause weight loss, stumbling, confusion and neurological symptoms, according to the CDC. It is found in deer, elk, reindeer and moose in areas of North America, Canada, Norway and South Korea.

Symptoms can take up to a year to develop and some call it “zombie deer disease” because it changes the host’s brain and nervous system, leaving the animals drooling, lethargic, emaciated, stumbling and has a “blank look,” according to The Guardian. It is fatal, with no known treatments or vaccines.


Some scientists have raised concerns that a deadly brain disease in deer, elk, reindeer and moose could spread in the future to humans after the first case of the disease in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service / Neal Herbert)

And now scientists are sounding the alarm that it may affect people, although no known cases have been recorded.

Epidemiologists say the absence of a “spillover” case doesn’t mean it won’t happen. CWD is one of a group of fatal neurological disorders that includes Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly referred to as “mad cow disease.”

“The BSE outbreak in Britain provides an example of how, overnight, things can go crazy when a spillover event occurs from, say, livestock to humans,” said Dr. Cory Anderson of The Guardian. Anderson is a program co-director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

“Were talking about the potential of something similar occurring. No one is saying that it will definitely happen, but it is important for people to be prepared,” added Anderson.

He added that what is also worrisome is that there is no known way to effectively and quickly eradicate it, “not from the animals infected with it or the environment contaminated by it.”

Anderson said that once an environment is infected, the pathogen is very difficult to eradicate. It can persist for years in dirt or on surfaces, and scientists report that it can withstand disinfectants, formaldehyde, radiation and burning at 1,100 F, according to The Guardian.

elk in yellowstone

A group of elk along the Temporary North Entrance Road in Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 11, 2023. Some scientists have raised concerns that a fatal brain disease in deer, elk, reindeer and moose could spread in the future to humans after the first case in Yellowstone National Park of the disease. (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)


The CDC on its website says that some animal studies suggest that CWD poses a risk to certain types of non-human primates, such as monkeys, that eat meat from infected animals. of CWD or having contact with brain or body fluids from an infected deer or elk.

“These studies raise concerns that humans may also be at risk,” the CDC website reads. “Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to prevent the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”

Park officials said that since the mid-1980s, the deadly brain disease has spread throughout Wyoming and is now found in much of the state. The disease is estimated to be found in 10-15% of mule deer near Cody that migrate to southeast Yellowstone in the summer. Yellowstone National Park said last month that the long-term impact of the disease on deer, elk and moose in Yellowstone is uncertain.

The Alliance for Public Wildlife, according to The Guardian, estimated in 2017 that 7,000 to 15,000 CWD-infected animals a year are accidentally eaten by humans, and that number is expected to increase by 20% per year. year.

A sign to enter Yellowstone National Park

An entrance sign along US Highway 212 at the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. A deer carcass in Yellowstone National Park tested positive for the highly contagious prion disease last month, leading some scientists to believe it could one day spread to humans. ((Image via: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images))


In 2005, researchers began observing 80 people who mistakenly ate infected meat and found that the group “had no significant changes in health status,” according to USA Today.

However, with the start of hunting season, the CDC recommends that hunters “strongly consider testing animals before consuming the meat.” The agency also advises hunters who harvest wild deer and elk from areas with reported CWD to check state wildlife and public health guidelines to determine if recommended or required the testing of animals in a state or region.

Meanwhile, Yellowstone staff are increasing collaboration and information sharing with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other state agencies to identify areas within Yellowstone that are at increased risk for CWD. Monitoring for the presence of CWD in deer, elk and moose in the park has also been intensified as has testing from carcasses.

Fox News’ Stephen Sorace contributed to this report.

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