After spreading to 31 states across the U.S., chronic wasting disease (CWD) has finally reached the deer population at America’s first national park.
A mule deer in Yellowstone National Park has tested positive for the disease, and it’s likely that 10-15% of the local deer population is already infected, the U.S. National Park Service said in a news release last week. This disturbing illness slowly shuts down the animal’s body, causing deer to lose energy and coordination while drooling excessively, resulting in the nickname “zombie deer disease.”
There’s no vaccine or treatment for CWD, which spreads through bodily fluids like feces, saliva, blood, and urine. So for the moment, park officials can only monitor and investigate its progress.
“To date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said.
Risk to Humans Unknown
Chronic wasting disease is a result of prions, or infectious proteins, that cause degeneration in the brain and nervous system of affected animals, and eventually death.
According to the CDC, reports of CWD have also emerged in three provinces in Canada; reindeer and moose populations in Norway, Finland, and Sweden; and a limited number of imported cases in South Korea. In 2017, Norway exterminated thousands of reindeer to try and stop the spread of the disease.
The disease has also been found in farmed deer and elk. However, it may affect other animals, such as monkeys, that come into contact with infected deer. The CDC says there are no documented cases of humans contracting the disease. Nevertheless, further research is ongoing to investigate the possibility of prion diseases occurring in individuals exposed to deer or elk meat.
For tourists, it’s important to avoid deer that look sick. Deer hunters should minimize handling of their organs, and have the meat tested for CWD before consumption, especially because the incubation period for the disease in deer is 1-2 years.
“That means for 1-2 years, a deer can be carrying CWD without showing outward signs that we would recognize that this deer is sick,” Lindsay Thomas Jr., Chief Communications Officer for the National Deer Association, said in the above video.
Wildlife officials have established CWD zones, which are areas known to contain deer with the disease. Hunters can use the onX Hunt app to find out if their hunting grounds are within an active CWD zone.