Officials at Yellowstone National Park confirmed their first case of the “zombie deer disease,” a fatal infection in the same family as mad cow disease, on Tuesday.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) got its “zombie” moniker from how the animals it infects tend to act strangely, similar to how horror movies portray the undead. The highly contagious fatal illness impacts cervids, a family of mammals that includes deer, elk, caribou, reindeer, and moose, reports Forbes.
The disease is caused by “infectious, misfolded variants of proteins that can cause their normal counterparts to fold incorrectly,” called prions, which slowly destroy the animal’s brain and nervous system. Symptoms include stumbling, drooling, and the drastic loss of body mass, otherwise known as wasting.
CWD is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, such as feces, saliva, blood, or urine.
There are currently no known treatments or vaccinations for the disease.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said, “Once established, CWD is notoriously difficult to fight.”
Even containment methods such as the controlled burning of impacted areas “do not remove the threat,” the experts said.
“Most attempts to eradicate this disease have failed, and scientists in other states have had limited success in their efforts to control its spread.”
While CWD is not known to infect humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “some animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to certain types of non-human primates, like monkeys,” which “raise[s] concerns that there may also be a risk to people.”
According to the United States Geological Survey, the federal government spent $280 million on CWD from 2000 through 2021, including more than $16 million in indemnity payments to cervid farmers.
The CDC is urging hunters to avoid animals that look sick, are found dead, or act strangely when hunting in areas known to be infected.