Zombie deer? Yes, and chronic wasting disease is now in Florida. 12 things you should know

Zombie deer?

It's not the latest Hollywood movie but a real concern for wildlife agencies around the country, and now, Florida.

The sickness some refer to as zombie deer disease actually is chronic wasting disease. It's a 100 percent fatal neurological infection found in members of the cervids family, including deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose.

So what is it and is it a threat to humans?

What is chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion.

Prion diseases are a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Abnormal folding of prion proteins leads to brain damage and the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease. It causes a degeneration of the brains of infected animals which results in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.

Prion diseases are usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.

Where has chronic wasting disease been reported in Florida, US and Canada?

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed in June a 4-year-old female deer killed on a Holmes County road sampled during routine surveillance activities tested positive for the disease.

It was the first known case of CWD in Florida.

CWD positive states and locations are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming as well as Canadian provinces Alberta, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.

What is FWC doing to help prevent the spread of the disease?

FWC planned to collect samples from specific zones to assess the spread of the disease and reduce the potential spread to other parts of the state.

Watch FWC public meeting discussing CWD

The CWD Management Zone is centered around the location of the positive sample. The CWD Management Zone includes the portions of Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties north of Interstate 10, east of State Road 81 and west of U.S. Highway 231.

Are there human prion diseases?

Other examples of prion diseases include bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle (also known as mad cow disease), scrapie in sheep and goats, and the following diseases in humans:

Can zombie deer disease be transmitted to humans?

To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people, according to the CDC.

However, some animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to certain types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk.

These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people.

Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.

Public health officials currently advise that while there is no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans, they recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk.

How can hunters avoid exposure to CWD?

The CDC recommends hunters who harvest deer in CWD-affected areas strongly consider having their animal tested for CWD.

It's important to note the test is used primarily for disease surveillance and is not a food safety test.

Suggestions compiled from the CDC, FWC and WHO include:

  • Avoid consuming the meat from any animal that tests positive for CWD or appears unhealthy no matter what the cause.

  • Do not shoot, handle, or consume any animal that is acting abnormally or appears to be sick.

  • Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing your deer, elk, or moose.

  • Bone out the meat from your animal. Do not saw through bone and avoid cutting through the brain or spinal column (backbone).

  • Minimize the handling of brain, spinal tissues and lymph nodes.

  • Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.

  • Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed.

  • Soaking clean (i.e., absolutely no solid tissue/foreign material present) instruments for 5 minutes in a 40% solution of household bleach has been shown to inactivate prions on stainless steel.

  • Avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of harvested animals. (Normal field dressing coupled with boning out a carcass will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.)

  • If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, request that your animal be processed individually without meat from other animals being added to meat from your animal.

Where has CWD been found?

States and Canadian provinces where chronic wasting disease has been confirmed as of June 2023.
States and Canadian provinces where chronic wasting disease has been confirmed as of June 2023.

As of July 2023, chronic wasting disease has been detected in 31 states; in wild cervids (deer family) in 30 states and in five Canadian provinces and in captive cervid herds in 18 states and four Canadian provinces, according to the World Health Organization.

Interactive map of reported cases of CWD

Wild reindeer, red deer, and/or moose with CWD have been found in Finland, Norway, and Sweden while CWD has been detected in captive cervids in South Korea.

How is chronic wasting disease transmitted?

The mechanisms of CWD transmission are not completely understood, according to the World Health Organization. Transmission is thought primarily to be from animal to animal. Although transmission from mother to fetus may occur, it appears to be relatively insignificant.

The CWD agent can be present in many organs and tissues within the body and can be shed by an infected animal in feces, urine, and saliva.

Another risk factor for the spread of CWD to new areas is via the carcasses or carcass parts of infected deer.

All states which have detected CWD cases have enacted transport restrictions in counties where diseased animals have been reported, according to the website Outside.

What are signs a deer has chronic wasting disease?

Currently, the only conclusive diagnosis for CWD involves examination and testing of the brain, tonsils and/or lymph nodes after death, according to WHO. Currently, there is no practical live animal test.

Most animals infected with CWD appear normal. This is because the minimal incubation period between infection and the onset of signs of clinical disease is approximately 16 months but could be as long as 3 years.  In most cases, animals with CWD show no visible signs of the disease for all but the last few months of the disease’s cycle.

Typically, CWD is characterized by extreme weight loss and abnormal behaviors such as listlessness, lowering of the head, inattentiveness toward people, walking in circles, staggering, and standing with a wide stance.

Death usually occurs within four months of the onset of clinical signs, although some animals may survive for up to a year. CWD is always fatal once a member of the deer family is infected.

Can zombie deer disease be treated?

There is no known cure for prion diseases and vaccines have been ineffective.

Since the prion is so persistent and stable, treatment or decontaminating the environment is extremely difficult and largely ineffective, according to FWC.

When is deer hunting season in Florida?

Hunting season is determined by zone and the type of weapon: archery, crossbow, muzzleloading and general gun.

For full details and dates, go to the FWC.

What to do if you spot a thin deer or are suspicious

The FWC is asking anyone who sees a sick, abnormally thin deer or finds a deer dead from unknown causes to call the CWD hotline, 866-CWD-WATCH (866-293-9282) and report the animal’s location.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Chronic wasting disease found Holmes County deer. What you should know