Chronic wasting disease has now been reported in deer, elk, and moose in 24 states across the US, according to the CDC. The disease isn’t new, but its nickname is: you can now read sensational headlines about “zombie deer.”
What is CWD?
Chronic wasting disease is a prion disease that affects a deer’s brain and nervous system. It’s sort of like a deer version of BSE, famously known in the 1990s as “mad cow” disease.
The cows weren’t mad and the deer aren’t zombies: Over time the disease causes animals to stumble, drool, and behave in unusual ways (not running away from predators, for example).
In the early stages of the disease (which can take years), there may not be any symptoms. In advanced stages, the deer may look emaciated — this is the “wasting” part.
What animals have the disease and where are they?
Chronic wasting disease has been observed in many of the animals in the deer family, including whitetail deer, mule deer, elk/wapiti, caribou, and moose.
In the U.S., the disease is widespread over Wyoming and several neighbouring states, with pockets of CWD in other states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. The CDC has a list of the 251 counties in 24 states where the disease has been reported.
Are ‘zombie’ deer dangerous to humans?
Probably yes, if you eat them. So far nobody has caught CWD from a deer, but experts say it’s bound to happen.
Prion diseases aren’t transmitted by a germ, like a virus or bacterium, but by a weird type of protein. This protein isn’t destroyed by cooking, and we know that in very rare cases, BSE can be transmitted from cows to people. Studies suggest that CWD may be transmitted from deer to macaque monkeys.
Prion Diseases in Australia
In Australia we have a different group of prion diseases to worry about, with the most common being Creutzfelt-Jakob disease - a rare degenerative disease of the brain that is fatal. This presents in much the same fashion as the Chronic wasting disease, with patients experiencing loss of balance, difficulty walking, muscle spasms, blindness and behavioral changes.
Every year almost one in every million Australians will develop CJD but have no risk factors for the disease. CJD usually doesn't present until the age of 65, where in the individual will start to lose a sense of themselves and their nervous system will begin to deteriorate.
Essentially anyone could be a ticking time bomb for Creutzfelt-Jakob disease, with no way of testing to find out. Doctors are only ever able to determine CDJ after an autopsy.
While brain eating zombies may not be real - brain eating proteins are a real threat that exist outside of horror movies.
Ultimately we are of course safe from the deer 'zombie' virus down here in Australia, but keeping aware of any and all outbreaks with the 'z' word online is the best strategy to surviving the undead.