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Concerns Grow That 'Zombie Deer Disease' Could Affect People, Too

According to the CDC, as of last month, CWD in free-ranging deer, elk and moose has been reported in at least 24 states, including New York.
According to the CDC, as of last month, CWD in free-ranging deer, elk and moose has been reported in at least 24 states, including New York. Photo Credit: File

WIth a deadly deer disease spreading, there are new concerns that it could affect people, too.

In February of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about Chronic Wasting Disease (also known as CWD or the more common “zombie deer disease”) in connection to deer, elk and moose.

It can take more than a year before an infected animal develops "zombie deer disease" symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms. CWD can affect animals of all ages. It is fatal to animals and there are no treatments or vaccines.

The CDC warning came after numerous cases were reported in free-ranging deer, elk and moose in at least 24 states, including New York.

To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, animal studies found that CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, such as monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected wildlife.

A new report in The Washington Post says, "Some experts say that in a nation with an estimated 10 million deer hunters harvesting six million deer a year and eating many of them, it may be just a matter of time before chronic wasting makes its way to us."

The CDC said "studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people."

Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended “that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”

The CDC said that additional studies are currently under way to identify if any similar prion diseases could be occurring at a higher rate in people who are at increased risk for contact with potentially CWD-infected meat. Prions are proteins that malfunction and misfold. There is no known cure or treatment for prion diseases.

“Because of the long time it takes before any symptoms of disease appear, scientists expect the study to take many years before they will determine what the risk, if any, of CWD is to people,” the CDC said.

In the meantime, the CDC is recommending animals be tested if they are harvested from an area where CWD has been found, and if it tests positive, not to eat it.

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