'Zombie Deer Disease' Spreading; Watch What You Eat

Paul G. Auwaerter, MD


March 19, 2019

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm Paul Auwaerter for Medscape Infectious Diseases, speaking from Johns Hopkins Division of Infectious Diseases.

You may have seen the "zombie deer" headlines recently, including news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I saw these reports when finishing an enjoyable ski vacation with the family in Colorado, during which my eldest son had enjoyed a few meals of game, including elk chops.

You may recollect when "mad cow disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was in the news in the 1990s. Mad cow disease seemed to center on feeding cattle animal products and bone meal from animals with prion disease. The cattle became sick and had prions, and the disease was passed on to humans.

Only about 230 cases have been described to date involving transmission to humans, and a small number of cases—perhaps 26 or so—occurred in North America. A similar issue has existed in the United States since the 1960s. More recently (since the early 1980s), wild deer, elk, and moose have been affected with chronic wasting disease. The animals develop listlessness and weight loss; they have neurologic symptoms, and they eventually succumb to this prion-based neurologic disorder.

Chronic wasting disease has now been characterized in 24 states and 251 counties, including nearly all of Wyoming and a large part of Colorado, and everywhere from the East Coast to the West and even the South. There is generally a low incidence in most free-ranging herds, but in some herds, up to 25% of the animals are infected.

Given the fact that some people enjoy hunting or eating deer or elk meat, what are the recommendations? Fortunately, there have been no documented cases of transmission to humans, but this remains a concern for public health organizations. Some of CDC's recommendations are commonsense and straightforward, such as don't shoot or handle animals that are acting bizarrely, don't handle roadkill or eat that animal, and wear gloves if you are field-dressing an animal.

If you eat wild deer or elk meat, consider having testing done, which is available, although not 100% reliable. Animals can be infected but not yet have positive testing.

I learned something that I didn't know, which may change my behavior and my son's. At restaurants you can ask whether the meat on the menu is from a farm-raised herd or the result of hunting. A national herd certification program certifies herds as being free of chronic wasting disease, giving some level of security that the animals are free of prion disease and pose a low risk to humans.

The headlines grabbed attention because of the words "zombie deer." It is a health issue among animals that seems to be spreading. From a human health perspective, as an infectious disease physician and father, who enjoys these kinds of meats, the topic is worth discussing.

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