Can Humans Catch ‘Zombie Deer Disease’?

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Scientists take samples from a deceased deer to check for CWD. The epidemic among deer has raised fears that the disease could jump into the human population. [MARK HIRSCH/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES]
In at least 22 states and portions of Canada, deer are dying from a neurological disease that has some people talking about a zombie deer-pocalypse. The deer, dying of a malady the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “chronic wasting disease,” stumble around with vacant facial expressions as they drool, drop dangerous amounts of weight and completely lose their fear of people. But can this “zombie deer disease” spread to humans, infecting our brains the way mad cow disease has done in years past?

Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” Like mad cow disease, which is a brain-infecting bovine spongiform encephalopathy that crosses the animal-human barrier, zombie deer disease can be transmitted to people. The infectious proteins responsible for chronic wasting disease are called prions, and they are known for their ability to evolve into infections that can attack other species. The concern is that people who eat infected deer meat may get sick, too. And deer aren’t the only worrisome creatures. In addition to white-tailed deer, mule deer and reindeer, moose and elk are contracting chronic wasting disease, as well.

The good news is that, as of Feb. 5, 2018, there have been no reports anywhere in the world of people contracting zombie deer disease. This is especially positive, considering the disease has been around since 1967, when it was discovered in deer living in Colorado. And, since consumption of venison and elk meat by people is ever-popular, there’s a very real concern about transmission. This is especially true for hunters, whom the CDC cautions not to harvest meat from areas known to be infected with chronic wasting disease.