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Scientists warn ‘zombie’ deer disease could spread to humans

Chris Pastrick
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AP Photo
Scientists are concerned that chronic wasting disease, or CWD, could end up infecting people.

Just as mad cow disease eventually spread to humans, scientists are concerned that chronic wasting disease, or CWD, could end up infecting people.

Speaking last week to lawmakers in Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said , “It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead. It is possible that number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”

Years ago, Osterholm was part of an expert panel that tracked the development of mad cow disease.

CWD afflicts deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it can take up to a year before an infected animal displays symptoms, which include severe weight loss, drooling, stumbling, lethargy, and a zombie-like stare, hence the nickname.

As of January, the CDC reports the disease has been documented in at least 24 states and two provinces in Canada. In Pennsylvania, the Game Commission reports cases tripled recently, with 25 instances in 2016 to 78 in 2017.

Scientists believe CWD is spread through protein molecules, known as prions — just as mad cow disease was transmitted. Animals can get the disease through direct contact with body fluids, tissue, feces or urine from an infected animal or contaminated environment.

There is no known cure.

“If Stephen King could write an infectious disease novel, he would write about prions like this,” Osterholm told lawmakers.

While there have been no reported cases of CWD in humans to date, the CDC says, “animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people.”

In Pennsylvania, the state game commission reports most of the cases were found in the state’s south-central Disease Management Area, with only three infected deer found in north western Pennsylvania. The game commission says about 5,900 square miles of the state are now designated as a DMA.

“It’s important for each of us to take this threat seriously and do all we can to slow the spread of the disease where it exists,” the game commission’s executive director, Bryan J. Burhans said in a release last year.

For more information and details about on CWD and how Pennsylvania is combating it, visit the game commission’s information page .

Chris Pastrick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at 724-226-4697, [email protected] or via Twitter @CPastrickTrib.