A new report from researchers published in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology suggests that two hunters back in 2022 could have died from “zombie deer disease”-infected deer meat.

Both hunters were known to eat venison, but the deer herd they often hunted was known to have “zombie deer disease,” which is more formally known as chronic wasting disease.

The report shared that there’s “no conclusive evidence” that the disease actually passed from the deer to the hunters, but both hunters’ cases of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after being in close contact with “zombie deer disease” suggests that there could be a transmission occurring that we need to watch out for in the future.

What researchers saw

The researchers behind the new report are medical experts from the University of Texas at San Antonio, per CBS News, who suggest that the hunters who died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease contracted it by eating venison meat that was already infected with “zombie deer disease” or chronic wasting disease.

Both hunters experienced symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which include seizures, aggression and rapid-onset confusion, according to the study. What concerned researchers the most is that both men ate venison from the same deer population that had zombie deer disease and promptly fell ill and died in 2022. This gave researchers reason to believe there could be an “animal-to-human transmission of (chronic wasting disease).”

BBC reports that some studies have shown that “zombie deer disease” can possibly transmit from animals to humans. But these studies were only done in a lab and had many limitations, so it’s not conclusive if the disease can infect humans.

‘Zombie deer disease’ in national parks

Multiple national parks already have deer populations infected with “zombie deer disease.” According to Scientific American, the disease is contagious and spreads rapidly among cervid populations, which include deer, moose, elk, reindeer and caribou.

The disease has been found in Canada, the U.S., South Korea and Scandinavia, according to BBC. In 2023, Yellowstone National Park announced finding “zombie deer disease” for the first time in a mule deer carcass, per the National Park Service.

It has also been seen it in at least 24 states, mostly spreading to the east, but it has been seen as far west as Utah.

Maryland recently announced finding the disease in two national parks in the state for the first time, Fox News reports. It was found during operations to reduce deer populations.

New studies planned

Scientific American reports that 68 experts on chronic wasting disease from around the world came together in 2023 to create a “major initiative” that would study future challenges society may face if the disease ever infected humans.

The experts currently focus on prion disease diagnostics, surveillance of livestock and wildlife and education, among other things.

It is not known for sure if chronic wasting disease can infect domestic animals or humans, so the major initiative (led by infection disease expert Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota) received $1.5 million to study both of these possibilities, per Scientific American.

‘Zombie deer disease’ is spreading. Scientists are worried it could infect humans
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