Scientists Express Concern Over Spread Of ‘Zombie Deer Virus’

By Victor Winston, updated on December 25, 2023

The discovery of a deer infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Yellowstone National Park has stirred a wave of concern among the scientific community.

This alarming case signifies the first known instance of CWD within the park's boundaries, intensifying worries about its potential impact on wildlife and, possibly, humans.

Chronic Wasting Disease, a prion disease, has been detected in various parts of North America, Canada, Norway, and South Korea. It's highly contagious among cervids - deer, elk, reindeer, and moose - manifesting as weight loss, neurological impairment, and ultimately death. There's no known cure or vaccine for CWD, and once an environment is contaminated, eradicating it becomes a monumental challenge.

Understanding the Disease's Nature

The symptoms of CWD include drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness, excessive drooling, and lethargy, culminating in death. Its resemblance to Mad Cow Disease (BSE), which notoriously crossed species barriers to infect humans in Britain, adds to the apprehension surrounding CWD's recent discovery in Yellowstone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), animal studies suggest a potential risk of CWD transmission to certain primates consuming infected meat. This revelation raises concerns about the disease's possible threat to human populations.

The infected deer, discovered in the Wyoming area of Yellowstone, adds to the existing data that indicates a 10-15% prevalence of CWD in mule deer near Cody, Wyoming, many of which migrate into Yellowstone. This case highlights the urgency of understanding CWD's impact on local wildlife populations and the broader ecosystem.

Concerns of Human Transmission

While there have been no reported cases of CWD transmission to humans, the scientific community remains vigilant. Epidemiologists caution that the absence of spillover cases to humans does not guarantee future safety. The CDC's website references studies involving non-human primates, emphasizing the theoretical risk to humans exposed to CWD through the consumption of infected meat.

Dr. Cory Anderson from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) remarked on the situation, drawing parallels to the BSE outbreak in Britain:

"The BSE outbreak in Britain provided an example of how, overnight, things can get crazy when a spillover event happens from, say, livestock to people. We’re talking about the potential of something similar occurring. No one is saying that it’s definitely going to happen, but it’s important for people to be prepared."

A study conducted in 2005 involving 80 people who consumed CWD-infected meat revealed no significant health changes, providing a semblance of relief. However, this does not conclusively negate the risk of transmission.

Efforts in Managing and Monitoring CWD

Efforts to manage and monitor CWD have continued since its spread across Wyoming in the mid-1980s. The World Health Organization, since 1997, has advised keeping all known prion diseases, including CWD, out of the human food chain, highlighting the gravity of the issue.

This advice is underscored by estimates suggesting that each year, between 7,000 and 15,000 humans consume meat from CWD-infected animals, knowingly or unknowingly. The long-term impact of such consumption remains a critical question in public health and wildlife management circles.

The recent discovery at Yellowstone is a stark reminder of the enduring challenges in containing and understanding CWD. It is a call to action for continued vigilance and research into this elusive and dangerous disease.

The Future of Yellowstone's Wildlife

The long-term impact of CWD on Yellowstone's deer, elk, and moose populations is a matter of great uncertainty. As the disease continues to spread, the health of these vital wildlife populations remains in jeopardy.

The situation calls for concerted efforts in research, monitoring, and, perhaps most importantly, public awareness. Knowledge and understanding of CWD's transmission dynamics are crucial for developing effective strategies to mitigate its spread and protect wildlife and human health.

In light of these developments, the scientific community and wildlife agencies must work hand in hand to confront this challenge. The discovery in Yellowstone is a somber reminder of the intricate connections between wildlife health and human well-being.

Conclusion

  • A deer in Yellowstone National Park tested positive for CWD, marking the first known case within the park.
  • CWD is a fatal brain disease with no known cure, affecting deer, elk, reindeer, and moose.
  • Scientists are concerned about the potential for CWD to spread to humans, though no cases have been reported so far.
  • The CDC and other health organizations emphasize the importance of keeping prion diseases out of the human food chain.
  • The long-term impact of CWD on Yellowstone’s wildlife and its possible effect on humans remains uncertain.

About Victor Winston

Victor is a freelance writer and researcher who focuses on national politics, geopolitics, and economics.

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