Many of humanity’s worst epidemics have begun when infectious diseases make the jump from animals to humans. The Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in the history of human civilization, was spread when Oriental rat fleas living on rats began infecting humans with the Yersinia pestis bacteria they were carrying. Throughout the past decade, many types of bird and swine flu have jumped from animals to humans, causing deadly outbreaks in many parts of the world. Now, scientists in North America are growing increasingly concerned about the risk of a bizarre “zombie” disease being transmitted to humans through the consumption of infected animals’ meat. Is it time to give that veganism thing a shot?
Authorities from Colorado to Missouri have been detecting evidence of a widespread outbreak of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in deer across the United States. The disease attacks the brain through the introduction of prions, a type of highly infectious misfolded protein which causes nearby proteins in brain tissue to misfold as well. This causes all sorts of neurological damage, eventually leading to a zombie-like state in which animals walk repetitive set patterns, avoid other animals, and generally become listless and catatonic until brain function ceases altogether. While the disease has so far been confined to deer, elk, and caribou, there are signs that it is adapting to spread to new areas of the animal kingdom, possibly even to humans.
Canadian researchers discovered that CWD can spread to primates who eat infected deer meat, and now American scientists are worried that the popularity of deer meat in many rural areas means chronic wasting disease might soon turn unsuspecting venison eaters into veritable zombies. Matt Dunfee, head of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance in Colorado, says that while scientists have so far been comforted by the fact that a species barrier has prevented the spread of this zombie disease to humans, recent data show that the barrier “might not be quite as robust as we once thought.” Given that deer-to-primate transmission is relatively recent phenomenon, scientists feat that some strains of the disease might be very close to jumping to humans. You might want to think twice about that venison festival next weekend.