This Terrifying Disease Turns Deer Into ‘Zombies’ — Are You At Risk?

There are a lot of unbelievable human diseases out there. Though brain-eating infections aren’t as common as it may seem, they’re terrifying to think about. There’s even a condition called chronic wasting disease, which begins in the brain and infects its victim’s ability to move, communicate, and survive.

Deer all over Canada lose their lives to this rare neurological infection. Find out if you’re at risk, too.

What is chronic wasting disease?

Scientist analyzing dish with virus and bacteria cells

There is no cure for the disease. | iStock.com/solarseven

Chronic wasting disease is a type of prion disease, a class of rare, incurable, progressive degenerative brain infections.

Prions enter the brain and cause functional proteins there to behave abnormally. This is a contagious, highly destructive reaction, which is why those infected cannot recover. Once infected, a victim gradually wastes away.

Next: Weight loss is just one of many devastating side effects.

What does it look like?

man with his head in his hands

Weight loss is just one of the signs. | iStock.com

This type of infection causes drastic weight loss, sometimes called wasting. Infections also often cause their victims to stumble, behave erratically, become socially isolated, and, eventually, die. Like many diseases that develop slowly, though, sometimes there aren’t any visible signs at all.

Next: This is who’s at risk.

Who (or what) does it infect?

Byers Lake, Alaska, with a view of Denali

Elk and deer in Canada have been infected. | Mbarrettimages/iStock/Getty Images

Most reported infections have originated in North America, specifically in Canada. So far, the disease has only been found in animals like elk and deer. The more these infections spread among these animals, however, the more officials worry they might find their way to humans.

Next: All diseases transmit from organism to organism differently.

How does the infection spread?

Dairy Cow Grazing at Sunset

It’s similar to mad cow disease. | iStock.com/arophotos

Officials still aren’t sure exactly how chronic wasting disease spreads from animal to animal. Because the infectious agents are so resilient, it’s likely both direct and indirect contact play a role. Coming into contact with the saliva, urine, and feces of infected animals probably transmits the disease most frequently.

Even though it’s widely known that “mad cow disease” — another prion disease — infects humans as the result of eating contaminated meat, we’re not sure if chronic wasting disease works the same way.

Next: There’s a chance you could develop the disease.

Are humans at risk?

emergency room entrance

Luckily, no cases have been reported in humans yet. | Source: iStock

Even though there haven’t been any reported cases of chronic wasting disease in humans yet, that doesn’t mean there never will be. Animals like monkeys that come into contact with the meat or brain fluids of infected elk or deer are at an increased risk of infection.

We’re safe as long as prion disease-causing agents don’t enter the human food chain. Officials don’t know how it might affect us, so it’s best to be cautious.

Next: There have been “human zombie” cases before.

There’s actually already a ‘human zombie’ condition

Relax — we’re not in a Walking Dead situation yet. | AMC

There are several very real health conditions that might cause a person to look or even act like the zombies you’d recognize from movies. Sleeping sickness, for example, alters a person’s central nervous system and disrupts their sleep cycle.

Dysarthia, another neurological condition, robs its victims of the inability to speak. Physiologically, they can still produce sounds, but can’t communicate the way they used to.

Next: Diseases find creative ways to spread between species.

How animal diseases spread to humans

Contact with infected animals and poorly prepared food can spread disease. |  iStock

Zoonotic diseases are those that can spread from animals to humans. It’s estimated that millions of people die every year from infections they contracted from nearby animals.

How does this happen? If people don’t come into contact with infected animals directly, they might visit the places where they live. Foodborne illnesses make up a large portion of these infections due to preventable contamination.

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