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  • Writer's pictureSmridhi Malhotra

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and its Potential Threat to Humans

Scientists are sounding the alarm on chronic wasting disease (CWD), a rare and fatal illness affecting deer, categorizing it as a "slow-moving disaster" with potential implications for human health.


The colloquially termed "zombie deer disease" first emerged in Yellowstone National Park, sparking concerns among wildlife experts. It is a fatal prion disease affecting members of the deer family, including deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, and moose. 

It's called "zombie deer disease" due to the bizarre and concerning behavior some infected animals exhibit in later stages. The symptoms in the early stages are often asymptomatic. It spreads primarily through contact with infected bodily fluids and tissues, like urine, saliva, and carcasses. Environmental contamination from prions can also play a role, as they can persist in soil and water for years. Currently, there is no cure or vaccine for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) characteristics and spread: Insights from diagnostic tests

Characterized by symptoms such as drooling, lethargy, stumbling, and a vacant stare, CWD has been identified in 800 samples of deer, elk, and moose across Wyoming. The National Park Service's diagnostic tests confirmed the presence of CWD in an adult mule deer from a population study near Yellowstone Lake, raising concerns about its potential transmission to humans.

Lessons from history: Parallels with past disease outbreaks

Drawing parallels with past incidents such as the mad cow disease outbreak in Britain, scientists, including CWD researcher Dr. Cory Anderson, emphasize the importance of preparedness. The Mad Cow Disease outbreak in Britain was a devastating public health crisis. Caused by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the disease led to severe neurological disorders in cattle and, tragically, several human deaths due to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. 

It prompted widespread concern, stringent regulations, and significant shifts in livestock practices. Dr. Anderson, the program co-director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), underscores the need for governments to be ready for the uncertain possibility of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) affecting humans.


Zoonotic concerns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: A growing fear

The backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified fears of zoonotic diseases, where infectious agents jump from animals to humans. Scientists warn about the potential for more frequent epidemics due to climate change and deforestation, further emphasizing the need for preparedness.

Altered ecosystems and disrupted wildlife habitats create conditions conducive to zoonotic spillovers, enabling infectious agents to jump from animals to humans more frequently. This amplifies the risk of emerging infectious diseases, posing a significant global health challenge. 

CWD global presence: Identifying hotspots and risks

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been identified in animal populations across 31 U.S. states, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and South Korea, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite no reported cases of human infection, the extended incubation period before symptoms appear complicates the assessment of the risk of CWD in humans. 

Assessing the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in humans is complex. With no reported cases in humans, the extended incubation period complicates evaluation. Scientists stress the need for vigilant monitoring and research, acknowledging the uncertainty. Understanding the potential threat requires ongoing studies, considering the intricate dynamics of zoonotic diseases.

Protective measures: CDC Recommendations for hunters

Given the potential seriousness of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), hunters are advised by the CDC to exercise caution. As a preventive measure, the CDC strongly recommends testing the meat for CWD before consumption. This proactive stance aims to mitigate the risk of exposure to the disease, underlining the importance of safeguarding public health. acknowledging the gravity of the situation and the "zombie deer disease" nickname, reflecting the impact on the hosts' brains and nervous systems, with symptoms taking up to a year to manifest.

What you can do to prevent Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

If you see a deer exhibiting unusual behavior, report it to wildlife authorities. You should avoid consuming venison from areas with known Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) cases. Always practice safe hunting and carcass handling procedures.

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