As ‘zombie deer disease’ spreads, experts worry about risk for humans


Experts aren’t sure if “zombie deer disease” can spread to humans, but they’re concerned about the rising number of cases and the potential of humans being impacted by exposure to infected deer.

Scientists are still unsure if humans can contract the illness, but the disease is being compared to mad cow disease.

“As of yet, there has been no transmission from deer or elk to humans,” Jennifer Mullinax, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Maryland, told the BBC. “However, given the nature of [the disease], CDC and other agencies have supported all efforts to keep any prion disease out of the food chain.”

Any documented transmission to humans would result in a crisis, according to research published in a presentation by Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

In Graphics: ‘Zombie deer,’ or chronic wasting disease, is expanding in the US. Here’s what to know.

The research calls for agencies to be prepared for the disastrous consequences of the disease spreading to humans or production animals, like cattle. It also states that the increasing spread could lead to the emergence of new strains.

“To date, ten chronic wasting disease (CWD strains) have been characterized,” the presentation states. “The expanding range of CWD in North America and its presence in South Korea as well as Scandinavian countries will potentially result in millions of [deer] infected with CWD.”

USA TODAY reached out to Osterholm and other members for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, but have not heard back yet.

Zombie deer disease: Why scientists say humans should ‘be prepared’.

What is ‘zombie deer disease’?

The disease, also known as chronic wasting disease, is a type of prion disease, a rare, progressive neurodegenerative disorders. While scientists are still unsure if this specific strain can spread to a person, prion diseases in general can affect both humans and animals. 

Mad cow disease is an example of a prion that can spread from cattle to humans.

CWD affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose, according to the CDC. Afflicted animals have been found in Canada, the United States, Norway and South Korea.

How does ‘zombie deer disease’ spread?

Scientists believe the disease’s proteins, or prions, spread through the following:

Experts say the disease can also spread quickly throughout a population.

Julia is a trending reporter for USA TODAY. She has covered various topics, from local businesses and government in her hometown, Miami, to tech and pop culture.

You can follow her on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram and TikTok: @juliamariegz.


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