In recent weeks the popular press and social media has picked up on reports of an infectious disease in deer known as chronic wasting disease. CWD has now been confirmed in 24 states including Utah. Some experts quoted in the media have dubbed the deer afflicted with this disease as “zombie deer” because they believe the disease could one day affect human beings.
In reality, deer and elk, which are also members of the deer family, but are afflicted with the chronic wasting disease, have little in common with the fictitious zombie. Deer affected with CWD do not mindlessly roam the earth looking for humans to feast on. However, some disease experts quoted in the media have raised public concerns that humans could contract CWD by eating the meat of harvested deer.
To date, no cases of CWD have been reported in humans. Bur studies have shown it can be transmitted to animals other than deer including primates. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are up to 15,000 animals affected with CWD are eaten each year. But scientists can’t say for sure that eating deer infected with CWD will cross over and infect humans.
There is a consensus in the wildlife disease community that CWD is a prion disease, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy or TSE. TSE’s have been documented in sheep, cattle, deer and humans. In the 1980s and 1990s, a TSE known as mad cow disease was documented in the United Kingdom. 156 people were reported to have died of this disease because they ate meat of contaminated animals.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that hunters test deer before eating the meat of deer that are harvested in infected areas. If a deer looks sick or acts strangely hunters are encouraged not to shoot or handle the animal or its meat.
For more information about the status and management of CWD in Utah see wildlife.utah.gov/disease/cwd.