A “zombie disease” infecting deer with the potential to spread to humans sounds like a rejected 80’s B-movie, but this disease is real…and it’s spreading.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a brain disease that leaves the cortex filled with tiny holes. The first sign that a deer has CWD is difficulty walking properly, followed by weight loss and odd behavioral patterns (lack of social interaction, tremors, repetitive motion). In some cases, the deer become aggressive. As far as we know, the disease is always fatal once contracted.
What makes CWD and other spongiform encephalopathy-type diseases so scary? Well, we don’t really understand why they happen, and we have no real way of curing them. We know they happen because of prions (or incorrectly-folded brain proteins that cause normal brain proteins to fold incorrectly too), and that animals can get infected by eating feces or dead matter from other infected animals, but we don’t know why prions are made in the first place. Even better, since proteins are not technically alive, this means there’s no way to kill them! Even thoroughly cooking meat with prions in it won’t be enough to get rid of them.
Essentially, prions are a “zombie disease”: neither alive nor dead and hungry for brains.
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