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Explained: The 'zombie disease' epidemic that is killing deer in Canada

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Explained: The 'zombie disease' epidemic that is killing deer in Canada

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When a deer is infected by chronic wasting disease (CWD), it may lose the fear of humans and other predators. They may show some other symptoms like drooling, poor coordination, stumbling, depression, paralysis and behaviour changes.

Explained: The 'zombie disease' epidemic that is killing deer in Canada

The deer population in Canada’s western regions has come under threat of a strange, debilitating and highly communicable infection that is spreading like wildfire.

The epidemic chronic wasting disease (CWD) is raging among the deer population in the prairies and parklands and is a concern in two Canadian provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, the VICE World News reported.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), chronic wasting disease, also known as the zombie disease, is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, moose, sika deer and reindeer. The disease can affect animals of all ages and can be fatal. At present, there are no treatments or vaccines for the disease.

Why ‘zombie’ disease?

When a deer is infected by CWD, it may lose the fear of humans and other predators. They may show some other symptoms like drooling, poor coordination, stumbling, depression, paralysis and behaviour changes. As a result of these outward symptoms, people often refer to CWD as ‘zombie disease,’ a name apt in this case as the illness can be transmitted through animal-to-animal contact.

Onset and spread

The disease was first detected in a captive deer at a research facility in the US in the late 1960s. It later spread in the wild populations in Colorado, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, the report said. In Canada, the disease was first found in 1996 in an elk farm in Saskatchewan. It then spread into the wild population. In 2005, the first case in Alberta was confirmed.

“Now we’re looking at CWD encroaching on the eastern edges of Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary,” Margo Pybus, a researcher and wildlife disease specialist with the Alberta government’s fish and wildlife division, told VICE World News.

Although the infection has mostly been found in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Manitoba reported its first case last year.

Are humans at risk?

According to the CDC, humans can acquire the disease if they consume an infected deer or elk. Hunters are particularly vulnerable to the disease as the infection may enter their body due to improper handling of the carcass. They may even get infected by consuming deer meat.

Till date, no cases of CWD have been recorded among humans. However, the CDC has recommended testing of the deer before consuming it and refraining from eating the meat if it tests positive.

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