Chronic debilitating disease (CDD), also known as "zombie deer disease," is officially spread in 24 US states.
The neurodegenerative disease affects hoofed animals such as elk, reindeer, moose and various deer species. This causes havoc in the brain and nervous system of the creatures: the bodies of infected animals decay when they lose weight at a rapid rate, and they eventually stumble, confused, slobbering and apathetic, like the undead – d & # 39; where the name zombie.
Until now, most cases have been documented in the Rockies, the Midwest and the Eastern United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infection rates in a given population can range from 10% to 25%.
"It's a disease we can not get rid of," CBS Chicago Dale Garner, Wildlife Officer at the Iowa Natural Resources Division told CBS. "There is no treatment up to now, so as long as you have deer in the landscape and these continue to spread from one animal to the other, you will probably have more. "
Over the past 15 years, CWD has grown from two states to at least 24 today. Some people across the country have posted on YouTube videos of animals behaving in a strange way, probably because of the symptoms of CWD. In addition to cases reported in the United States, cases of the disease have been reported in Canada, Norway, Finland and South Korea.
Scientists believe that CWD is transmitted from one animal to another through contaminated body fluids or by indirect exposure to contaminated carcasses or drinking water. The disease can affect wild and farmed deer and elk, but not livestock.
Could 'zombie deer disease' be passed on to humans?
MDC is a type of neurological disease called prion disease. Prions are curly proteins that have misfolded and damage the brain and spinal cord. MDC is always fatal.
"Mad cow disease", officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes progressive neurological degeneration in animals and humans. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease belongs to the same category: 70% of people who contract the disease die within one year, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Health.
Prion diseases often have long periods of incubation, which means that animals infected with MDC may not show signs of the disease for at least a year after exposure.
Zombie deer disease has not spread to humans, but the CDC predicts that if it is transmitted to humans, it would most likely occur through the consumption of infected deer meat.
"We do not know if there will ever be transmission to humans, but we could do it," Business Insider Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy told AFP. University of Minnesota.
The biggest risk is that the disease evolves so that it can infect people. This is what happened with the mad cow disease in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. The disease first infected the livestock before ending up in the reserves. human food. It caused in humans a new type of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that resulted in rapid brain damage and death.
Osterholm testified before Minnesota lawmakers about this risk earlier this month. He noted that the Alliance for Public Wildlife estimates that people already consume between 7,000 and 15,000 CWD infected animals each year.
"It is likely that the human cases of MDC associated with the consumption of contaminated meat by the MCD are documented in the coming years," he said.
Read more: US health authorities warn that "zombie deer disease" is spreading – and some fear it's starting to infect humans
Mark Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, told Colorado State Radio that he was convinced that "it's only a matter of time" before any type of MDC likely to infect a human being does not appear.
"It is possible that the number of human cases is considerable"
Osterholm testified that consumption of CWD-infected meat is expected to increase by 20% each year.
"We are concerned not only with people who consume infected venison meat, but also with the risk of cross-contamination of the meat processing system," he said.
For now, the CDC, Health Canada and state health officials are telling people not to consume meat that may be infected with CWD.
"You could eat infected deer without even knowing it," Osterholm said.
He does not want hunters to stop hunting deer, as hunting prevents their populations from skyrocketing. According to the CDC, the best way for hunters to determine if an animal is infected is to have the meat tested before eating it. Mr Osterholm hopes that these tests will soon become more user-friendly. Right now, sending meat for testing sometimes takes days.
During his testimony, Osterholm also warned that, based on his studies on mad cow disease, "it is possible that the number of human cases is considerable and not an isolated event".
This is particularly worrisome because Osterholm thinks that the incubation period of MDC in humans could last up to 10 years. Thus, transmissions could occur for a long time before the health experts are aware of it.
"The bottom line is that this is unfortunately ignored as a potential major public health problem," he said. "We must act now for the cases that will occur in 10 years".