In an alarming development, over half of the United States, including Kentucky as the most recent addition, has reported cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD), often referred to as “zombie deer disease.”
This fatal neurological condition primarily affects deer, elk, and moose, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease, first identified in Colorado in 1967, has now spread to numerous states and other parts of the world, including Canada and some Nordic European countries. Notably, the disease is not known to naturally infect cattle or other domesticated animals.
The condition, which can lie dormant for over a year, manifests through symptoms such as severe weight loss, stumbling, lack of coordination, and listlessness. The disease spreads through contact with contaminated body fluids and tissues or environmental factors like water and food. Despite no reported human infections, recent research indicates a higher risk of transmission to humans than previously believed. The CDC highlights that the disease causes damage to normal prion proteins, particularly in the brain and spinal cord, leading to significant brain damage and other prion diseases.
This disease’s common name, “zombie deer disease,” stems from the neurological symptoms observed in affected animals, such as drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, and a reduced fear of humans. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, prions are proteins that can cause other normal brain proteins to fold abnormally, leading to fatal and transmissible prion diseases in mammals. Currently, chronic wasting disease has been reported in over 30 states in the U.S. and has reached three Canadian provinces. Additionally, cases have been documented in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, affecting reindeer and moose, with a few imported cases in South Korea. The widespread nature of this disease underscores the growing concern for wildlife health and the potential implications for human health.
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