Chronic wasting disease (CWD), often referred to as “zombie deer disease,” has been confirmed in the elk and deer populations of two Canadian provinces and at least 24 states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned. There’s a potential risk it could spread to humans, the agency added.
On its website, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported four confirmed infections in Saskatchewan and one in Alberta between January and December, 2018. In those cases, both elk and deer were affected.
The CFIA also noted another case of CWD in Quebec from September of that year.
Symptoms of chronic wasting disease for animals include stumbling, lack of coordination, drooling, drooping ears, aggression, listlessness, drastic weight loss, excessive thirst or urination, and lack of fear of people.
The disease belongs to a family of diseases called prion diseases, which includes the human form of “mad cow disease.”
It eats holes in the animals’ brains, and no cure has been found for it so far.
CWD was first identified in the late 1960s in Colorado and has spread since 2000.
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There have been no reported cases of the disease in people, but studies have shown that CWD can pose a risk to non-human primates, such as monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with their body fluids, according to CDC.
CDC says experimental studies “raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD.”
The disease generally transmits between animals through body fluids and has been found to be contagious within deer and elk populations.
If it were spread to people, it would most likely be through eating infected deer or elk, but the CDC says it is not known if people can get infected with CWD.
Currently, the disease occurs in free-range deer and elk at relatively low rates, but in areas where it is established the infection rate may exceed 10 per cent and localized infection rates of more than 25 per cent have been reported, according to CDC.
Infection rates in captive deer have been higher, with a rate of 79 per cent reported from at least one captive herd.
CDC recommends hunters test animals for CWD before eating them in areas where the disease is known to be present, and to not shoot or handle meat from deer that look strange or are acting strangely.