13/02/2019 6:24 PM IST

Experts Warn Fatal ‘Zombie’ Deer Disease Could Spread To Humans

Hunters are urged to be on the lookout for symptoms of chronic wasting disease, though they can take years to appear after infection.

Health experts are warning that a fatal infectious disease that is spreading across the US among deer, elk and moose may be transmittable to humans.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is described as a progressive, fatal disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and other tissues of animals, has been documented in at least 24 states as of January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The disease, which can take years for symptoms to appear after infection, is believed to spread through bodily fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, by both direct and indirect contact in the environment. There are no treatments or vaccines.

The symptoms, which have been compared to those of zombies, may include drastic weight loss, stumbling, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, lack of fear of people, and aggression.

Though there have been no confirmed animal to human transmissions, some health officials, pointing to laboratory tests, say it may be only a matter of time.

A white-tailed deer showing symptoms of chronic wasting disease, including drooling, is shown in this undated file photo provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

“It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Michael Osterholm, the director for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease and Research Prevention, told Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “It is possible that (the) number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”

Laboratory studies have shown that the CWD’s mutated protein, which is called a prion, is capable of infecting animals that carry human genes like squirrel monkeys, macaques, and lab mice, according to the CDC.

It is possible that (the) number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.

One study performed by German and Canadian scientists has also found that macaques could be infected by eating meat from infected deer or elk, as well as deer that had CWD but had yet to show symptoms. An earlier study did not confirm this transmission, however, the CDC said.

“To date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions,” the CDC’s website states. “Nevertheless, these 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.”

As of January, there were 251 counties in 24 states with reported CWD in free-ranging cervids. Those states are 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.

During Thursday’s hearing about the disease at the Minnesota Capitol, health experts from the University of Minnesota urged lawmakers to treat CWD, which has spread geographically since its 1967 discovery, as a public health issue, the Pioneer Press reported.

The urge came as researchers with the university requested $1.8 million to develop a test for the disease that would not require the animal to be dead.

Dr. Jeremy Schefers, a pathologist with the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory who has been studying the disease over the last decade, is among those stressing the need for such a test.

Authorities are urging hunters to take extra precautions to minimize potential exposure to the disease while handling deer carcasses.

“I have watched CWD move into Minnesota and I’m frustrated that we haven’t found strategies to slow down or contain the disease,” he said in a release by the university. “Unfortunately, our lack of a rapid test that works on live animals, or our ability to test other things such as soil, meat processing equipment, and samples from other animals that might carry the prion, clouds our understanding of CWD transmission.”

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection offers an online field guide on how to properly field-dress deer to minimize possible exposure to the disease.

The guidelines include wearing rubber or latex gloves when cutting or processing the meat, minimizing contact with the animal’s brain, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes, and thoroughly cleaning ― with a 50/50 solution of household chlorine bleach and water ― any knives or utensils that are used to harvest the animal.