Deer chronic wasting disease

Image by Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

For some reason, zombies seem to find themselves the subjects of popular attention time and time again. We’re not just obsessed with our own destruction, we want to see it happen as grotesquely as possible. We want to see ourselves walking in slow, jerky strides; we want to see flesh falling from our faces and hushed groans escaping our lips. Well, as it turns out, that’s still not an impossible scenario. A seemingly incurable disease like this is what we seem to be predicting every time, and it looks like we may have just found it. The warning signs are officially in place, and although it won’t be overnight, this disease (currently affecting deer) could eventually creep its way into human beings if it’s given enough time. So, will we be seeing the dead rise from their graves? Well, not exactly. We’ll actually be observing quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s the apocalypse, without the need for stockpiling weapons

The disease that’s got everyone freaking out is primarily observed in deer, moose, and elk. It’s called chronic wasting disease (CWD). If you ever see a shaggy deer walking around looking like it’s incredibly stupid or possibly lobotomized, a word of advice: run away (or at least, don’t eat it). These are the symptoms that CWD is known to cause in the animal. What’s more, we still have no idea why this happens or how the disease is transmitted. The only thing we know for certain about the cause of the disease is that it may have something to do with “prions.” These are essentially corrupted proteins, but exactly how they’re corrupted is anyone’s guess. These prions seem to be the only commonality that infected animals have with one another besides the symptoms, so most of the research effort is being focused on them.

In its current state, this disease could be more dangerous to humans than cancer, for the sole reason that there is no known treatment or cure.  Luckily, there still seems to be no confirmed cases of humans contracting the disease from deer. Unluckily though, there’s an appropriate cause for concern regarding the disease’s future transmission to humanity. CWD is closely related to mad cow disease (formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy), in that mad cow disease is also mysteriously caused by prions. The same optimistic thinking cannot be applied to this cousin of CWD, as there are confirmed cases of humans contracting a similar disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) from infected cows. It’s not exactly the same disease, but it’s rooted in prions: confirming that, in rare cases, the prions can make the leap from one species to another.

Natural selection may not be on our side with this one

Many researchers have admitted fear of a slippery slope scenario. A scenario in which, though the prions haven’t spread directly to humans from deer and other similar animals, it’s very possible that the infection could spread to other species of wildlife. The disease could work its way through various animals, mutating until eventually, it becomes compatible with human beings like the infamous mad cow disease. If that is a possibility, it’s very important that we devote all the resources we can to figuring out what’s going on with these zombie deer. It’s possible that, if we don’t figure it out soon enough, we may have a catastrophe to rival that of the bubonic plague on our hands. And in case you weren’t paranoid enough, one of the men that predicted that mad cow disease could infect different species is now predicting that the same thing could happen with CWD.

There’s more to observe when it comes to the prion-related human illness. Or rather, there’s actually less to observe; Known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob, the disease is just about every bit as obscure as what these deer are infected with. We’ve seen it happen, though, and so has the CDC. In fact, the CDC had even taken it upon themselves at one point to investigate three cases of infection back in the ’90s, mainly because the disease formed rapidly. At that point, seeing something like that was a new development for the disease, as previously it had only ever shown up later in life. So, what does this disease do to a person? Well, you know those zombies in movies that move really slow, and make you wonder why the protagonists are so afraid of them? It’s about the same, except less cannibalistic. The illness essentially destroys your brain over the course of a few months while you stumble around, losing mobility and mental function along the way until you’re left crippled on the ground, unable to comprehend whether or not you’re still alive. Fun!

Hold your horses, the world’s not over yet

Although this article may make it sound like it’s time to start nailing two-by-fours over every entrance in your house, keep in mind that this is all just potential. Though it’s certainly possible that this may be the beginning of the end, it’s also certainly possible that a solar flare could extinct us within a couple of days. Okay, that’s not making you feel any better, is it… well, think of it this way: as long as we keep up research, we’ll probably be fine. It’ll likely be a very long time before the disease is ready to infect all of humanity, ensuring that if we play our cards right, we’ve got plenty of time.

In the meantime, just make sure you don’t eat any zombified venison. You’ll be fine.