Zombie Deer Disease: Alert that a “slow-moving disaster” in North America could result in a deadly disease similar to mad cow that transcends species boundaries called the “Zombie Deer Disease”.
The October death of the mule deer buck occurred miles from the closest road, in an area most people would consider to be in the middle of nowhere. However, its final breaths were not drawn in a remote area of the United States. It was the first confirmed instance of chronic wasting syndrome in the nation’s most well-known nature reserve, and it died from a long-feared sickness in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.
The aberrant, transmissible pathogenic organisms known as prions are the cause of chronic wasting disease (CWD), which has been quietly spreading over North America for years. Hunters have been the main people to raise concerns about CWD after noticing unusual behaviour in deer.
Some have dubbed it “zombie deer disease” because of the telltale “blank stare” that the animals exhibit, as well as drooling, lethargy, emaciation, and stumbling as a result of the neurological and brain alterations caused by the prions. The cervid family, which includes deer, elk, moose, caribou, and reindeer, is affected. As there are no recognized cures or vaccinations, it is lethal.
A significant public awareness campaign has been triggered by its discovery in Yellowstone due to the “Zombie Deer Disease”, the ecology of which sustains the widest variety of large wild mammals in the continental United States, according to Dr Thomas Roffe, a veterinarian and former head of animal health for the US federal agency Fish & Wildlife Service.
“Ironically, this case is a good thing because it puts CWD on the radar of widespread attention in ways it wasn’t before,” he claims. “There are significant ecological ramifications to this disease.”
For decades, Roffe had been forecasting that CWD would eventually make its way to Yellowstone and cautioning that both the federal government and the state of Wyoming needed to take decisive action to help impede its spread. He claims that because the warnings were mainly ignored, the consequences will now be felt by the millions of visitors to the park each year.
The region serves as a sizable laboratory for studying the effects of CWD invasion on an ecosystem that retains its natural range of biotic diversity. Numerous scavengers such as grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, coyotes, and others are sustained by the hundreds of thousands of elk and deer that traverse Yellowstone.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and an epidemiologist who examined the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease,” a related prion condition, in the UK, calls the disease a “slow-moving disaster.”
Dr Cory Anderson just received his PhD, concentrating on the transmission channels of CWD while working with Osterholm. The disease we have is extremely contagious, always lethal, and incurable. The concern is exacerbated by the fact that we lack a simple, efficient method for eliminating it from both the environment and the animals it infects.
It is very difficult to remove a pathogen from an environment after it has taken hold. It is resistant to radiation, formaldehyde, disinfectants, and burning at 600 degrees Celsius (1,100 degrees Fahrenheit), and scientists have shown that it can linger for years in dirt or on surfaces.
Jumping the species barrier
In addition to affecting big-game animals, CWD has drawn interest in the US and Canada due to the likelihood that it could cross species boundaries. Moose, elk, and deer can spread the disease to humans, other animals, birds, and even livestock. According to epidemiologists, just because there hasn’t been a “spillover” case yet doesn’t imply one won’t occur. Among a group of lethal neurological conditions that also includes BSE is CWD.
“An example of how things can get crazy overnight when a spillover event happens from, say, livestock to people” is the BSE [mad cow] outbreak in Britain, according to Anderson. We’re discussing the possibility that something akin to this might happen. No one is saying that it’s definitely going to happen, but it’s important for people to be prepared.”
Disease ecologist Dr. Raina Plowright of Cornell University believes that one should consider CWD in the context of deadly developing zoonotic infections that are circulating worldwide between livestock, wildlife, and humans across species boundaries. As agricultural practices and human settlements encroach more deeply into areas where animal interaction with disease-carrying organisms is growing, outbreaks take place.
The US Centres for Disease Control and individual states strongly advise that game animals be tested for disease after harvest and that meat from cervids that appear sick not be ingested, especially as the hunting season approaches.
In 2017, the Alliance for Public Wildlife calculated that between 7,000 and 15,000 CWD-affected animals were inadvertently consumed by humans each year, and that figure was predicted to rise by 20% annually. According to Anderson and Osterholm, thousands of people in Wisconsin, where testing game meat is optional, have undoubtedly consumed meat from contaminated deer.
For other states, Wyoming is a point of reference. 92,000 tissue samples have been gathered and examined there since 1997, according to Breanna Ball of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. 6,701 deer, elk, and moose samples were analysed last year. Approximately 800 samples had disease, indicating an increase in infection rates.
As per the US Geological Survey, there are currently 32 states and three provinces in Canada where CWD is found.
Slowing The Spread of The Zombie Deer Disease
The Yellowstone officials are updating their surveillance plan and handling more sick animals going forward in response to the confirmation of CWD in the park. According to Roffe, the virulence of CWD is “density dependent,” meaning that infection rates are higher in areas where a lot of animals congregate.
He points out that the contentious practice of people artificially feeding wildlife is particularly troubling. Over 20,000 elk in Wyoming get lucerne at nearly two dozen ‘feedgrounds’ run by the state and federal governments to help them through the winter. Prominent associations for wildlife management have denounced the practice.
“What is needed to help slow the spread of CWD is clear and has been known for a long time,” according to Roffe’s scientific analysis. “When a pandemic of disease is spreading, you do not feed wildlife.”
According to studies, some creatures that hunters view as rivals may actually be allies. Because they can identify diseased animals long before humans do, wildlife predators like wolves, cougars, and bears will hunt them down and eradicate them from the environment. They have remained immune to illness thus far.
Wildlife conservationists point to a major policy contradiction in which the three states that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—which some estimate to span 90,000 sq km or 35,000 sq miles—encourage the widespread killing of wolves and cougars for sport and livestock protection, even when doing so is needless and may even be detrimental to the control of chronic wasting disease (CWD).
Roffe stated, “We don’t know where this scary disease event is headed; we’re still at the front end of it.” “Many Americans who value having healthy wildlife on the landscape are also at risk, as is the Yellowstone ecosystem.” – Zombie Deer Disease