“There may also be a risk to people.”
Despite ongoing efforts to reduce its spread in the United States and abroad, the deadly chronic wasting disease (CWD) remains a threat — with no vaccine or cure.
In 2005, “zombie deer” disease struck New York after several deer infected with the chronic wasting disease escaped from a fenced enclosure in Oneida County, a largely rural area in upstate New York.
Only a rapid and aggressive cull by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation – resulting in the slaughter of hundreds of deer, in cooperation with local hunters – was able to stop the outbreak.
To date, New York is the only state to have eliminated CWD from its deer, moose and elk populations.
But CWD has continued to spread around the world — including a recent case in Yellowstone National Park — and many areas of the country are on alert for the disease in wild and domesticated animals.
How does chronic wasting disease develop?
Medical experts know chronic wasting disease as prion disease, a group of rare progressive neurological disorders that affect humans and animals.
Other prion diseases include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease.”
The disease causes sponge-like holes to appear in the brain of the affected animal, in addition to affecting the spinal fluid and other body tissues.
Although there have been no cases of CWD spreading to humans, some studies suggest that it poses a risk to certain species of primates that come into contact with bodily fluids from infected animals.
“These studies raise concerns that there may be a risk to humans as well,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a 2021 report.
That same year, Pennsylvania reported an outbreak of CWD in deer a few miles from the New York state border. As of this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the disease has been detected in 31 states, as well as three Canadian provinces, Northern Europe and South Korea.
How does CWD spread?
Prion diseases like CWD have a long incubation period, which is particularly concerning because an infected animal appears healthy for up to two years before symptoms appear, during which time it can transmit the disease to other animals.
CWD and other prion diseases are spread through bodily fluids and through contaminated soil, plants, food, or water. As the disease progresses through the brain and nervous system, affected animals may develop symptoms that include:
Recommended precautionary measures
Hunters are asked to be on the lookout for deer, moose, elk, or other members of the cervid family that exhibit any of these symptoms.
Additionally, anyone dressing, skinning, or butchering meat should wear nitrile, rubber, or latex gloves.
To control the spread of CWD, New York and most other states have strict regulations against the importation of live deer and other deer from out of state, as well as bans on the importation of carcasses and byproducts.
People are also not allowed to feed wild deer because most human food is unhealthy for deer, and because concentrating the animals in one feeding area can help spread CWD.