It sounds like something out of a bad horror movie, but it’s real: Hunters in 24 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces are being warned about a devastating “zombie-like” disease that is infecting free-ranging deer, elk, and moose.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a progressive and ultimately fatal disease that affects the animal’s brain, spinal cord, and other tissues, according to the CDC, and belongs to a family of conditions called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
As of January, 251 U.S. counties in 24 states reported cases of CWD in free-ranging cervids. The map below offers what the CDC says is the best available location data from state wildlife agencies.
Importantly, the CDC says there is no strong evidence that CWD can be transmitted from deers to humans, but they’re not ruling it out completely. The disease has been shown to experimentally infect squirrel monkeys and lab mice that carry some human genes. If it could spread to people, the CDC says that would probably happen if a person were to eat an infected deer or elk, and since a larger percentage of hunters eat the animals they hunt, the agency is urging preventive steps to keep as safe as possible:
- Do not shoot, handle, or eat meat from deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely or are found dead (roadkill).
- When field-dressing a deer: 1.) Wear latex or rubber gloves when dressing the animal or handling the meat. 2.) Minimize how much you handle the organs of the animal, particularly the brain or spinal cord tissues. 3.) Do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing.
- Check state wildlife and public health guidance to see whether testing of animals is recommended or required. Recommendations vary by state, but information about testing is available from many state wildlife agencies.
- Strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for CWD before you eat the meat.
- If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, consider asking that your animal be processed individually to avoid mixing meat from multiple animals.
- If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.
You can read more about prevention on the CDC’s website here.