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Experts warn deadly ‘zombie’ deer disease could spread to human in future years

Posted at 3:28 PM, Feb 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-18 16:28:53-05

Experts are warning that a deadly disease affecting deer in 24 states including Texas and two Canadian provinces could spread to humans.

The St. Paul Pioneer-Press reports that scientists from the University of Minnesota recently told lawmakers at the Minnesota State Capitol about the dangers of chronic wasting disease.

There have not been any cases of the disease reported in humans, according to Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. But, Osterholm expects human cases will likely be “documented in the years ahead.”

The disease first was identified in captive deer in the late 1960s in Colorado and in wild deer in 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Symptoms include drooling, stumbling, lack of coordination, lack of fear of people, listlessness and aggression. That combination helps explain how the disease got the “zombie deer” nickname.

The disease is considered a prion disease. Prion diseases are a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals, according to the CDC.

“If Stephen King could write an infectious disease novel, he would write about prions like this,” Osterholm told lawmakers.

According to the CDC, the disease gets its start infecting prion proteins in the brain, and is passed through contact with contaminated body fluids and tissue.

There are no treatments or vaccines for CWD, and the disease is fatal.

The CDC is concerned about the potential for CWD to infect humans, as a July 2017 study has shown monkeys who ate infected deer meat contracted the disease.

But there is no known case of CWD in a human. Still, the CDC has warned the public to test venison or elk meat for CWD before eating it from areas with documented infections.

In the United States, the disease has been detected in deer in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, , Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming as well as Texas.

For more information on chronic wasting disease, click here.