You might have heard of the “zombie deer disease,” the horrifying disease that has spread to wildlife in 24 states. The disease, technically called chronic wasting disease (CWD), is fatal for every deer infected, attacking the animal’s brain and nervous system. Experts now fear that the illness may jump the species barrier and begin to affect humans, as well.
The disease got its grotesque name due to the nature of the illness in the deer population — the deer become scrawny, weak, and solitary. They also lose all fear of socializing with humans. Someone’s imagination connected these traits to a brain-craving zombie; the name stuck.
Experts are concerned that a hunter may kill an infected deer and accidentally consume tainted meat. Since the disease doesn’t become apparent until two years after infection, it would be difficult for a hunter to know whether the deer was truly safe to eat.
“The vast majority of the time hunters find out their animal has CWD, they’re shocked,” Matt Dunfee, head of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, told Colorado Public Radio. “It was moving just like everything else. It had great body fat.”
Similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, CWD results from misfolded proteins called prions, which cause a slow chain reaction in nerve tissues leading to fatal deformation of the brain and spinal cord. Experts believe BSE originated among cattle that were fed meat and bone meal from other mammals, and meat from BSE-infected cows is believed to have caused numerous cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans before careful controls were put in place.
While some diseases cannot jump the species barrier, there are some unfortunate clues suggesting this disease might. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, macaque monkeys contracted CWD after eating infected deer as part of a study.
“To date, there have been no cases of CWD in people and no direct proof that people can get CWD,” the CDC reports. “Nevertheless, these experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people.”
The Daily Meal has reached out to the CDC for further comment.
The similarities to BSE and the recent report from the macaque study indicate that CWD could hypothetically be dangerous to humans. Mad cow disease resulted in European meat being banned in America — find out how here, along with strange stories of 6 other banned meat products.