(Gray News) – A fatal disease that affects the brains and spinal cords of deer, elk and moose has shown up in at least 24 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – often referred to as “zombie deer disease” or some variant – is in the same family as the human form of “mad cow disease.”
Symptoms of CWD in animals include: stumbling, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, aggression, lack of fear of people, and drastic weight loss.
The disease is spread directly by animal-to-animal contact and indirectly through contaminated water and food.
The CDC says “to date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people;” but if CWD could spread to people, “it would most likely be through eating of infected deer and elk.”
There have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people.
Still, 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 CDC recommends that hunters harvesting wild deer and elk from areas where CWD has been reported “strongly consider” having the animals tested for the disease before eating the meat.
Another CDC recommendation: “Hunters harvesting wild deer and elk from areas with reported CWD should check state wildlife and public health guidance to see whether testing of animals is recommended or required in a given state or region.”
The CDC also recommends that hunters shouldn’t shoot, handle or eat meat from animals that show symptoms of CWD.
As of January 2019, the disease has been reported in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The CDC says the overall occurrence of the disease nationwide in free-ranging deer and elk is relatively low, but adds that infection rates in areas where the disease is established may exceed 10 percent, or 1 in 10 – and infection rates of more than 25 percent have been reported in some areas.
“The infection rates among some captive deer can be much higher, with a rate of 79 percent (nearly 4 in 5) reported from at least one captive herd,” the CDC says.
CWD doesn’t appear to naturally infect cattle or other domesticated animals.
CWD has also been reported in two provinces in Canada, and in reindeer and moose in Norway and Finland – and there’s been a small number of imported cases reported in South Korea.
The disease was first identified in captive deer in the late ‘60s in Colorado and in wild deer in 1981.