What is Zombie Deer Disease in Canada

Deer zombie disease in Europe

In recent years, cases of the so-called "deer zombie disease" have increased in Europe. It mainly affects red deer, elk and reindeer, but transmission to humans has not yet been registered.

The term "deer zombie disease" sounds drastic and, above all, threatening, scientifically correct the disease is called "chronic wasting disease" (CWD). It belongs to the group of communicable, degenerative brain diseases - similar to BSE - and mainly affects red deer, elk and reindeer. Characteristic is the spongy decomposition of nerve tissue and the associated chronically progressive course of the disease. CWD always ends in death.

Typical symptoms

Sick animals stand out mainly because of their changed behavior. In the early stages of the disease, there is confusion, apathy and coordination disorders. The animals have motor difficulties, salivate heavily and lose weight drastically in the course of the disease. In some cases, they behave aggressively or show little fear of people. The name "zombie disease" describes all these changes in the otherwise robust and shy animals.

First cases in Europe

CWD has been known in North America since the late 1960s. However, in the past few decades, the disease has spread rapidly among wildlife populations in the United States and Canada.

The first case in Europe concerned a young female reindeer in Norway and was confirmed by laboratory tests in early April 2016. In February 2018, a dead elk with CWD was found in Finland. In response, a monitoring program was set up in eight European countries (Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Sweden) in the same year. To date, not a single case is known from Austria.

Transmission to humans

In the wild, only transmission to red deer, elk and reindeer has been recorded so far. Sick animals excrete the pathogens (prions, abnormally changed proteins) through saliva, urine and feces. It is transmitted either orally from animal to animal or indirectly through the environment. Transmission to humans has not yet taken place, but researchers cannot completely rule out the possibility: In laboratory situations, both mice and primates became ill.

How can you protect yourself from CWD?

Since Austria is currently free from CWD, the likelihood of contracting the disease is negligible. Nevertheless, for safety reasons, the consumption of meat from wild animals that appear "suspicious" should be avoided.

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Astrid Leitner
Editorial editing:
Mag. Julia Wild

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