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.
CWD is 50 years old, but it’s gotten publicity lately after outbreaks were found in 22 US states and two Canadian provinces. So far, the disease hasn’t spread to humans. But a 2017 study funded by the Alberta Prion Research Institute showed that macaque monkeys could contract CWD after eating tainted meat, meaning the disease could make the jump to primates.
Many are troubled by the memory of the “mad cow disease” epidemic that swept Europe in the late 90’s and the 2000’s. After people ate the infected meat, the prion disease was passed on to human hosts, and over 200 people died from it. In humans, the disease is called Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and causes psychiatric problems, pain, and quick death (within 13 months). As with CWD, there is no known cure.
Currently, officials in the infected states and provinces are urging caution while deer-hunting, asking hunters to avoid meat from sickly-looking deer or elk and “strongly consider” having their meat tested for CWD before eating it. Hopefully, that will be enough to nip any “zombie apocalypse” in the bud.
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