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What is 'zombie deer disease' and should I be worried about it?

There's been a lot of hype around chronic wasting disease, but it's not actually new.
Credit: AP
A deer tuns in a snow covered field near the village of Gorodishche, some 50 km (31 miles) south-west of Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. The temperature in Belarus reached around 2 Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

A terrifying-sounding headline is making the rounds on social media, suggesting "zombie deer" are wandering around the United States and could infect humans.

Wild game cookbook author Steven Rinella recently told NBC News the media-driven hysteria was “one of the worst cases of clickbait appeal.”

Here's the truth: These so-called "zombie deer" are actually suffering from something called chronic wasting disease (CWD) -- which gradually harms the brain and leads to dramatic weight loss, stumbling and listlessness.

Speaking to USA TODAY, Lindsay Thomas Jr., a spokesperson for the Quality Deer Management Association, recently compared the disease to dementia -- saying infected animals are generally more confused than threatening.

CWD has been around for a long time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was first recognized in the late 1960s. But, it has never been seen in humans.

According to the CDC, CWD has not been reported in Florida. You can find a full list of affected areas here.

As of January 2019, NBC News reports the disease has made its way to free-range cervid populations, affecting animals like deer, elk and moose. As a result, some health experts have speculated that humans who eat contaminated meat could risk contracting the disease.

The burst of news articles came after University of Minnesota infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm testified to the Minnesota Legislature.

"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," Osterholm reportedly told Minnesota lawmakers. "It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial, and will not be isolated events."

But, the CDC's statement is much less severe.

"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," the center wrote.

So, CWD could theoretically affect humans. But, it hasn't yet.

However, there's no reason not to take precautions -- just to be safe.

The CDC recommends hunters not shoot, handle or eat meat from deer or elk that look or act in a strange manner. The center also suggests wearing rubber gloves when field-dressing a deer, avoiding the use of kitchen utensils when dealing with the animal and minimizing how much you touch the organs.

Also, the government recommends having the deer or elk tested before you consume the meat. And, if the animal tests positive, don't eat it.

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