‘Zombie deer virus’: Middle East is safe but doctors warn of human infection risk as animal cases climb globally

With research suggesting possibility of animal-to-human infection, UAE doctors say precautions needed against ‘zombie deer virus’ as cases rise sharply in animals across US, Canada and northern Europe

Despite no reported cases of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – commonly known as the “zombie deer virus” – in the Middle East so far, doctors in the UAE are urging continued precautions as global case numbers climb.

Infected animals can display neurological symptoms such as impaired cognition and changes in behaviour ultimately resulting in death. The disease affects animals like deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose.

CWD spreads across US regions

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Chronic Wasting Disease has been reported in at least 31 US states, three Canadian provinces, and select countries in Europe and Asia. First identified in captive deer in Colorado in the 1960s, it emerged in wild deer in 1981 and has since spread to affect many regions of the continental US.

So far, no cases of CWD transmission to humans have been reported. However, experimental research suggests that “it is a possibility, especially if human eat infected meat,” Dr. Saheer Sainalabdeen, Specialist Pulmonologist at Dubai’s Medeor Hospital, told Arabian Business.

The CDC estimates that people in the US may consume up to 15,000 animals each year that have CWD but are not tested. Additionally, normal cooking temperatures are not always high enough to kill the abnormal prion proteins that cause CWD. In animals, it spreads through body fluids like saliva, urine, and feces. The prion proteins can also remain in the environment for a long period of time.

Zoonotic threats: CWD vs. COVID-19

Zoonotic diseases — viruses that spread from animals to humans, like COVID-19 — have the potential to wreak havoc if not contained. However, unlike the Coronavirus which was airborne, CWD primarily affects cervids, limiting its zoonotic spread and “further reduces the chances of a pandemic,” he added.

“In contrast to zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, CWD doesn’t pose an immediate global threat. Its transmission dynamics and impact on human health remain a subject of intensive study.”

Echoing Dr. Shanab’s sentiment, Dr. Sainalabdeen said that while CWD does not yet pose a serious risk of human infection or become the next pandemic, all medical authorities should “be prepared for a disease which is highly contagious, incurable and invariably deadly.”

At present, there is no available treatment or vaccine to cure CWD.

“Mad cow disease, which belongs to the same family of illnesses as CWD, originated in cattle, but humans can get a variant called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is fatal,” added Dr. Sainalabdeen.

For now, both experts reiterate the Middle East faces low direct risk with no reported CWD cases. Still, adhering to precautions like avoiding sick animals, using protective gloves when handling hunted deer meat and not consuming infected products could help curb any potential future transmission if the disease does reach the region. With global case numbers climbing, doctors say such measures are important to stay ahead of the risk posed by this still enigmatic prion illness.

Read More: Arabian Business

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