Most people don't believe there will ever be a real zombie apocalypse -- semi-human zombies stumbling through the streets, looking to satisfy the unquenchable hunger for human brains, a 1,000-yard stare in their unthinking demeanor, blood dripping from their half-open mouths.

Hopefully that kind of zombie apocalypse will stay confined to television shows and video games.

But there is another kind of zombie apocalypse taking place in the mountains and forests of the western United State, even here in the state of Utah.

Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, AKA the “zombie deer disease” is proliferating in multiple North American deer populations.

According to the Centers For Disease Control (good job on that whole Covid thing, by the way):

"As of November 2023, CWD in free-ranging deer, elk and/or moose has been reported in at least 31 states (including Utah) in the continental United States, as well as three provinces in Canada. As of November 2023, there were 414 counties in 31 states with reported CWD in free-ranging cervids."

The CDC also issued this warning: "Nationwide, the overall occurrence of CWD in free-ranging deer and elk is relatively low. However, in several locations where the disease is established, infection rates may exceed 10 percent (1 in 10), and localized infection rates of more than 25 percent (1 in 4) have been reported."

So just what is Zombie Deer Disease?

CWD is a progressive, fatal disease that affects the brain, spinal cord, and many other tissues of farmed and free-ranging deer, elk, and moose.

Animals that contract the disease have developed these "zombie-like symptons"

  • drastic weight loss
  • stumbling
  • lack of coordination
  • listlessness
  • drooling
  • excessive thirst or urination
  • drooping ears
  • lack of fear of people

There is no known cure for CWD, but thankfully the zombie disease does not appear to infect cattle or other domesticated animals.

How it's spread

Scientists believe CWD proteins (prions) likely spread between animals through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food or water. Experts believe CWD prions can remain in the environment for a long time, so other animals can contract CWD from the environment even after an infected deer or elk has died.

What about us?

Scientists say If CWD could spread to people, it would most likely be through eating of infected deer and elk. However, to date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions.

Just in case

The CDC does give us a list of recommendations to stay safe from the disease, although it should be reiterated that no human has yet to contract the "zombie" disease:

  • Do not shoot, handle or eat meat from deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely or are found dead (road-kill).
  • When field-dressing a deer:
    • Wear latex or rubber gloves when dressing the animal or handling the meat.
    • Minimize how much you handle the organs of the animal, particularly the brain or spinal cord tissues.
    • Do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing.
  • Check state wildlife and public health guidance to see whether testing of animals is recommended or required. Recommendations vary by state, but information about testing is available from many state wildlife agencies.
  • Strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for CWD before you eat the meat.
  • If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, consider asking that your animal be processed individually to avoid mixing meat from multiple animals.
  • If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.
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