Humans could soon be affected by a brain-wasting disease that has so far known as being fatal only to deer, epidemiologists say.
The infectious malady, named Chronic Wasting Disease and unofficially dubbed "Zombie Deer Disease", could potentially be transmitted to those who eat contaminated venison, according to Michael Osterholm, a biosecurity expert who heads the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," he told state lawmakers last week. "It's possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention classify the infection as a contagious neurological disease that ravages deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer (spotted deer), and moose.
It is caused by misfolded proteins, or prions, which leads to the spongy degeneration of the brain, resulting in emaciation, peculiar behaviour, loss of bodily functions and eventually death.
CWD was first observed in the 1960s when scientists noticed that deer in Fort Collins, Colorado, were starving to death after stumbling around like zombies. Since then, the disease has infected multiple wild herds across 24 states in the US, as well as Canada, South Korea, and Norway.
Although there have been no reported cases of humans being infected with CWD, Michael Osterholm argues that the situation could be similar to that of the last century, when a similar condition known as mad cow disease was initially detected in cattle but later infected people as well.