We’ve always feared the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, but could it become a reality? Some scientists worry that an illness known as “zombie deer disease” could begin infecting people.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD), an illness caused by proteins known as prions, has been infecting deer since the 1950s, when the first case was discovered in Colorado. Its nickname, “zombie deer disease,” comes from the fact that infected animals lose weight, have trouble walking, and develop vacant stares, making them look like the undead. CWD is similar to mad cow disease in the way it causes the brains and spinal cords of animals to waste away until the animal eventually dies. As of January, cases of CWD had been discovered in deer, moose, and elk populations in 22 states and two Canadian provinces.
No human cases of chronic wasting disease have ever been reported. But researchers at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found that three out of five macaques — monkeys who are genetically similar to humans — contracted the illness after eating contaminated venison. As a result, the Health Products and Food Branch of Canada wrote that “the most prudent approach is to consider that CWD has the potential to infect humans” in an April 2017 report.
But before you start preparing for the deer zombie apocalypse, you should know that macaques who contracted the illness ate a lot of venison. The infected monkeys each spent a period of three years eating five kilograms of meat. That’s about equal to a human eating a seven-ounce steak every month. And even though the monkeys were infected with CWD, there’s no guarantee the disease would behave the same way in humans.
Basically, there is no solid evidence that humans can contract CWD, but it’s best to err on the side of caution. If you’re a hunter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you don’t consume animals that were dead when you found them or that were acting zombie-like. Always wear gloves when handling deer meat, try to avoid coming in contact with deer’s brains and spinal cords, and consider having your meat tested for CWD.
The prospect of getting “zombie deer disease” is terrifying. But luckily, unless you regularly enjoy venison steaks, CWD shouldn’t be among the health risks that keep you up at night. Stay safe, everyone.