Zombie deer disease is grabbing headlines, so it’s important to share some facts about this disease with an apocalyptic headline. Will it bring about The Walking Dead or a Z Nation universe? No. The deer aren’t attacking people. I’d be more worried about rabies (back before there was a treatment) causing a zombie-like outbreak. But the wasting disease IS still a cause for concern, and you might want to be cautious about eating deer meat. It’s more like mad cow disease than a zombie disease.
Technically, what you’ve heard of as the Zombie Deer Disease is actually Chronic Wasting Disease, a prion disease affecting deer, elk, reindeer, and moose. It has a long incubation time, with animals sometimes not presenting symptoms for a year after infection. Symptoms include weight loss, stumbling, listlessness, and other neurological problems. They might even salivate and grind their teet and have weird walking patterns, which is why it got the zombie deer name.
It does NOT cause deer to attack and bite people, like your traditional zombie virus does. In fact, one expert told USA Today that he was baffled by the idea that the infected deer were referred to as zombies, because it’s more like they have dementia and are acting confused, not threatening. (Honestly, I’d be more worried about rabies back when it didn’t have a treatment, because animals infected with rabies DO attack people.)
But that doesn’t mean that this deer wasting disease should be taken lightly. It’s more akin to another prion disease, Mad Cow Disease. Although Chronic Wasting Disease hasn’t been reported in humans yet, according to the CDC, Mad Cow can give us an idea of what might happen if it was. Mad Cow disease is the human version of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is a prion disease found in cows. When humans eat cows with VCJ, they can develop Mad Cow disease, which is fatal and has no cure. Cooking the meat isn’t enough to kill the prions. The U.S. has safeguards in place to keep meat safe, but eating grass-fed beef is your safest avenue if you’re really worried.
Chronic Wasting Disease has been around since the 1960s, but now it’s been reported in 24 states. It’s a fatal illness in deer that spreads by prions’ eating away at deer brains. It eventually leads to dementia and death. It seems to be spreading among wild deer and even some captive deer.
So far, it hasn’t spread to people. A study in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that prions from CWD could infect human cells. But people who ate infected deer and even tested positive for the prions haven’t shown symptoms, USA Today shared. About 80 people were monitored over six years after eating deer that tested positive for CWD. They showed no significant health changes. That doesn’t mean the meat of infected deer is safe to eat, but it’s a comforting study at least. Scientists think that right now, with CWD, there’s still a strong “species barrier” preventing the disease from jumping to people. But other experts are still worried that we’re on borrowed time and the disease will eventually make the jump.
So the takeaway is that if you eat deer meat, you might want to be cautious. Hunters in areas known to have the disease might want to get their deer tested before eating the meat. If the disease ever makes the species jump, it will likely be fatal, just like Mad Cow. But it is NOT a zombie disease that could cause the end of the world.