In the US, an illness affects the brain and spinal cord of animals. Cases have also been reported in Europe. There is no cure, animals die. Is it transferable to humans?
The reports read dramatically: “zombie deer” spread further and further into the US, their central nervous system destroyed by an abnormal protein. It is only a matter of time before people are affected. What’s the zombie alarm – and how big is the risk for people really?
The animals suffer from Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The disease affects the brain, spinal cord and other nerve cells of red deer, elks and reindeer and is comparable to the cattle disease BSE and the sheep disease scrapie. Triggers are so-called prions, abnormal proteins that attack nerve cells and are extremely resistant to common disinfection processes such as heating. There is no cure, animals die.
CWD is not a new phenomenon. First cases were already documented in the late 1960s in the US state of Colorado, first in captive populations, from 1981 also in wild animals. From Colorado, the disease spread to Wyoming in the 1990s, with areas in the Midwest, Southwestern United States and individual areas on the US East Coast added since 2000. Particularly many cases report the states of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24 US states and two provinces in Canada were affected by January. In South Korea, a herd of Watipi deer imported from Canada fell ill. In Europe, the disease has so far surfaced in Finland and Norway.
The first case was documented by Norway in April 2016, after which 11,000 wild animals were tested – with two reindeer and two moose, the authorities were looking for. To limit the problem, Oslo released a whole reindeer herd of about 2200 animals for shooting. In Finland, a dead moose was found in February 2018 who had CWD.
Special danger for farm animals
Overall, the distribution of free-range deer and elk is relatively low, according to CDC. In some areas, however, the disease has become established, where infection rates are up to ten percent. Locally even every fourth animal can be affected. In captive herds, far more animals are affected, as many as 79 percent of a herd has been affected in the past.
How exactly the pathogen spread is unclear, researchers suspect oral transmission. The affected animals lose weight, are overly thirsty, become apathetic, dizzy, stagger, shiver and are aggressive when touched. Many of the animals also drool excessively and grind their teeth. Hence the term “zombie disease” – undead, of course, the animals are not.
The topic is now back in the media because a US researcher in Minnesota has warned against the transmission of the disease to humans. So far, no such case is known. In the wild, only the transmission to red deer, moose and reindeer is registered. Laboratory situations also affected mice and primates. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases, said last week in the Minnesota Capitol that it is “likely that there will be CWD cases in humans through consumption of infested meat over the next few years.” BSE was initially not considered to be a risk of infection to humans. “It is possible that the number of human cases will be considerable, not isolated cases”.
In addition to the health aspect, economic interests could also play a role. According to US news broadcaster NBC News , funding for research and prevention has become increasingly less since the federal authorities announced the 2001 national CWD emergency. But the fact that hunters can have their meat tasted for nothing costs a lot of money, not to mention in-depth studies.
Hunting is also big business in the US, which, according to the report, flushes $ 15 billion a year into the pockets of arms manufacturers, outfitters, and the rural small town tourism sector. Only – who wants to eat game, if he could endanger his central nervous system? In any case, hunters in affected areas have been recommended for years to have their animals tested before being consumed.