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Watching for ‘zombie deer’

A deer with chronic wasting disease. [Mike Hopper/MDC photo]

Chronic wasting disease [CWD] – popularly known as “zombie deer disease” – has been reported in at least 24 states in the continental U.S., including Missouri. In its late stages, this always-fatal neurodegenerative disorder produces symptoms in infected deer including a drooping head and ears, drooling, tremors, lack of coordination and excessive weight loss … hence the “zombie” designation.

Once a deer becomes infected, the incubation period before symptoms occur may be as long as 18-24 months, so deer that have the disease may appear perfectly healthy. Although cases found in Missouri have been relatively rare to date, the disease is slowly spreading, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The department is working to find deer with CWD and limit its transmission, since it has the potential to greatly reduce the number of healthy deer available to the state’s nearly 500,000 deer hunters and millions of wildlife watchers.

Over the coming weekend, Nov. 16-17, Missouri hunters who harvest a deer from certain counties located in the Department of Conservation’s CWD Management Zone are required to take it to a state-operated sampling station to have it tested for the disease. Counties near St. Louis included in the zone are Crawford, Franklin, Gasconade, Jefferson, Perry, St. Charles, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve, Warren, and Washington.

Currently, there have been no cases of CWD transmission reported in humans. However, scientists say that more research is needed to understand whether or not people could potentially become infected. Health authorities stress that the utmost precaution should be taken to prevent human exposure, in order to mitigate any possible transmission risks.

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