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On ‘Zombie Deer’: Why Chronic Wasting Disease Isn’t a Joke

Chronic Wasting Disease isn't a laughing matter, despite reports of "zombie deer" making appearances.
Gabriella Hoffman
by Gabriella Hoffman Read Profile arrow_right_alt

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says 24 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces are reportedly affected by chronic wasting disease (CWD). More specifically, 251 counties in 24 states reported cases of CWD in free-range cervid populations according to a January report.

CWD is a debilitating condition that plagues deer, elk, moose, and others in the deer family. Some have compared it to mad cow disease. Media coverage has sensationalized the issue by suggesting deer will become zombie-like if they contract CWD.

Steven Rinella, host of the MeatEater podcast and namesake Netflix series, told NBC News the media claims of deer morphing into zombies is “one of the worst cases of clickbait appeal.”

“It’s always unsettling when something like this catches on in the mainstream media and it gets grossly misrepresented and it doesn’t take into account all the expertise that’s been applied to this,” Rinella said.

Here’s how hunting organizations responded to the “zombie” claims:

“We are in an unknown territory situation,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told USA TODAY last Friday.

“It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Osterholm added. “It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”

On February 7, 2019, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) was joined by Senators Doug Jones (D-AL) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) who reintroduced The Chronic Wasting Disease Transmission in Cervidae Study Act, S. 382 . A companion House bill, H.R. 837, is also under consideration. Both bills, if passed, would direct the Agriculture and Interior secretaries to collaborate with the National Academy of Sciences to identify, test, and work to combat the “transmission of the disease, the infection rates and frequency for each pathway, anthropogenic and environmental factors contributing to CWD emergence events, geographic patterns for disease distribution, and significant gaps in current scientific knowledge about transmission.”

“Wyoming’s deer, elk and moose populations have been negatively impacted by chronic wasting disease for decades,” said Barrasso. “Now, 26 states have detected chronic wasting disease and new cases arise each day. We need to know more about how this disease spreads and which areas are most at risk. Our bill gives wildlife managers the tools they need to research and identify exactly where chronic wasting disease is most prominent and how we can better prevent it. It’s a critical first step to addressing this debilitating disease and keeping our wildlife herds healthy.”

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Chronic waste disease (CWD) is a highly contagious neurological disease that affects cervids — deer, elk, and moose— that causes spongy brain degeneration in infected animals. Hunters and other conservationists have been sounding the alarm on CWD for years, but this recent CDC news has ignited a new conversation on it.

CWD is often lumped in with similar diseases in the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) family—most famously mad cow disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) that notably plagued Great Britain and has popped up in the United States. Experts caution observers to not lump the two diseases together since transmission to humans isn’t conclusive yet.

The disease has been prominently discovered in the West and Midwest, although CWD cases have started to pop up on the East Coast.

It was first identified in captive deer in the late 1960s in Colorado and in wild deer in 1981, per the CDC. They also suggest that CWD in “free-ranging deer and elk is relatively low.”

How Can It Be Detected?

CWD is provoked by an agent called a prion, which is “an abnormal form of cellular protein that is most commonly found in the central nervous system and in lymphoid tissue.” The prion impacts cervids affected by CWD by converting normal cellular protein to the abnormal form.

Common detectable symptoms of CWD in cervids include emaciation, odd behavior, severe impairment of bodily functions, and eventual death. Symptoms can take up to a year to develop. Once wildlife is struck with the condition, it cannot be reversed.

It’s also important for hunters test meat they harvest or observe deer, elk, or moose that may exhibit these symptoms. Procedures vary from state to state, but hunters are getting more serious about testing venison, elk, and moose meat they harvest.

Can CWD Affect Humans?

As of right now, unlike mad cow disease, experts suggest CWD isn’t transmitted from infected animals to humans but caution hunters to be alert and aware of it should they encounter it in the field:

There is currently no scientific evidence that CWD has or can spread to humans, either through contact with infected animals or by eating meat of infected animals. The Center of Disease Control has thoroughly investigated any connection between CWD and the human forms of TSEs and stated “the risk of infection with the CWD agent among hunters is extremely small, if it exists at all” and “it is extremely unlikely that CWD would be a food borne hazard.

However, public health officials advise caution and recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk. Hunters are encouraged not to consume meat from animals known to be infected with CWD. In addition, hunters should take certain precautions when field dressing and processing deer or elk taken in areas where CWD is found.

A friend, however, told me that her aunt ate CWD-infected venison several years ago and died shortly afterward. While the frequency or plausibility of transference from animals infected with CWD to humans has been inconclusive, there are several cases of deaths related to CWD that should serve as cautionary tales.

Even though the CDC warns of more CWD cases, the reported instances affect a small number of cervids in affected areas. In Colorado and Wyoming, only six percent of deer were infected. It is less common in elk than in deer. This shouldn’t deter people deterred from hunting altogether. They should just exert caution when out in the field.

Experts also offer these recommendations when handling or encountering CWD-affected animals:

—Do not shoot, handle or consume any animal that is acting abnormally or appears to be sick. Contact your state game and fish department if you see or harvest an animal that appears sick.

—Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing your deer or elk.

—Bone out the meat from your animal. Don’t saw through bone, and avoid cutting through the brain or spinal cord (backbone).

—Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissues.

—Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed.

—Avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of harvested animals. (Normal field dressing coupled with boning out a carcass will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.)

—Avoid consuming the meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.

—If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, request that your animal is processed individually, without meat from other animals being added to meat from your animal.

Efforts to Combat CWD Are Underway

There are efforts underway to combat CWD, with groups like the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.  It was established in 2002 as a joint project  by the Boone and Crockett Club, Mule Deer Foundation, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to educate the American public on CWD and CWD prevention. It aims to “promote responsible and accurate communications regarding CWD, and to support strategies that effectively control CWD to minimize its impact on wild, free-ranging cervids including deer, elk, and moose.” Moreover, this coalition is also keen on providing timely, scientifically accurate information regarding CWD, human and wildlife impact, and recommendations for containment.

If you admire wildlife from afar or are an avid hunter, you should care about the health of deer, elk, and moose. If this cervids are decimated, conservation funding will suffer as a result.

The media loves to sensationalize sensitive topics, but chronic wasting disease isn’t a joke. Get educated and get proactive.

Photo Credit: The author, Gabriella Hoffman

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