Is zombie deer disease a risk to humans? Scientists' reply unlocks new fear | Health - Hindustan Times

Is zombie deer disease a risk to humans? Scientists' reply unlocks new fear

Feb 25, 2024 07:47 PM IST

No human cases of the disease have been reported yet but scientists have turned to experimental studies to hypothesise about animal-to-human transmission.

Experts are just as much in the dark as any of us when it comes to answering the question: Can the zombie deer diseases spread to humans? Although they're still climbing this hill, the rising number of cases in the US is taking a toll on the fear factor.

Scientists are still looking into if the zombie deer diseases can be transmitted to humans.
Scientists are still looking into if the zombie deer diseases can be transmitted to humans.

In their attempts to figure their way out, scientists are drawing up experimental studies and connecting the dots with the mad cow disease. In the latter case, it's already been confirmed that prions can spread from cattle to humans.

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In her interview with the BBC, Jennifer Mullinax, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Maryland, said: “As of yet, there has been no transmission from deer or elk to humans.” If animal-to-human transmission becomes a reality, all those dystopian, far-fetched fictitious scenarios could easily transform into our new, nightmarish reality.

“However, given the nature of [the misfolded proteins], CDC and other agencies have supported all efforts to keep any prion disease out of the food chain,” the professor added.

Also read: Bubonic plague in US: Symptoms to preventive tips, all you want to know

About zombie deer disease

The recent zombie disease outbreak is a prion disease, also known as chronic wasting disease (CWD). While scientists are still mulling over its impact on humans, other prion diseases have had a track history of being detrimental to both animals and humans.

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has claimed deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, and moose are the affected parties of CWD, all of which have been discovered so far in Canada, the US, Norway and South Korea.

As for its transmission, CWD's prions are reportedly spread via faeces, saliva, blood, and urine. Despite CWD being a contagious degenerative disease, the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service doesn't list bacteria and viruses as its cause. Instead, a naturally occurring protein emerges as the lethal factor, becoming infectious when incorrectly folded.

Yet again, the cause of this misfolding is shrouded in mystery. However, they confirmed that once a normal prion protein takes this deadly shape, it also converts other commonly occurring proteins to their misfolded form. As the degeneration continues, the afflicted animal's brain cells die, ultimately resulting in its death.

What are the chances of zombie deer disease spreading to humans?

In 2023, the Alberta province's (Canada) surveillance results showed that the mule deer positivity rate had risen to 23%.

In line with the lack of current evidence that would otherwise suggest that CWD can be transmitted to humans, Mullinax said: “The current body of research is a mixed bag, meaning we don't know yet”.

University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Director, Michael Osterholm, also added his side of the research to the ongoing debate. Even though researchers are still assessing the potential exposure to humans who come in contact with contaminated soil or water, they've noted that mad cow disease and CWD prions are structurally different.

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