Scientists have warned that "zombie deer" are spreading across America and there is nothing that can be done to stop them.
Officials monitoring chronic wasting disease, a deadly and severely contagious neurological disorder, in nationwide deer populations, said the illness has now spread to at least 26 states.
Known to cause emaciation, loss of bodily functions and a lack of fear of humans among deer, elk and moose, it has has been found in deer populations in the US and several Canadian provinces.
But the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) said chronic wasting disease could pose a threat to humans.
“We could be having human transmission occurring today and we wouldn’t even know it,” Dr Michael Osterholm told The Independent.
The director of the CDC centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, added: “The key issue here is that unlike the mad cow disease, here we see [chronic wasting disease] in the muscle as well, so it’s actually much more present in the meat that you’re eating. Cooking doesn’t do anything to destroy it."
Dr Osterholm said that it took nearly 10 years to detect human transmissions of the so-called mad cow disease, otherwise known as the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
He also noted that illness does not actually turn deer into “zombies,” and the term “zombie deer” is an inaccurate, non-scientific misnomer to describe the confounding disease.
Dr Osterholm said federal leadership would be crucial in order to curb the nationwide spread of the illness and officials have warned there is a lack of state resources when it comes to testing animal populations for chronic wasting disease.
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Peregrine Wolff, a veterinarian with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, reportedly warned local politicians there was no stopping chronic wasting disease from inflicting damage to the state’s deer populations.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” she said during a public testimony over proposals to ban the import of certain animal body parts into the state, according to the Las Vegas Sun. “We know that we can’t wrap Nevada in a bubble.”
There have been no known human transmissions of the disease at this point, according to the CDC.
But officials said that the public can take steps to avoid coming in contact with and consuming contaminated meat.
“Know the area you’re hunting in,” Dr Osterholm said.
He suggested that hunters should be made aware of any confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease in their regions.
They should also alert officials to sick animals who may appear to have the illness.
“The most important thing you can do is get the animal tested,” he said. And if there’s any thought that an animal may have come in contact with the illness or is sick themselves, harvesting their meat should not even be considered.